WAGONS WEST

The Epic Story of America's

Overland Trails

By Frank McLynn

Grove. 509 pp. $35

Few things are as enticing as a soft chair, a hot fire and a tale of someone else's struggle to survive a harrowing journey. We brew our tea and brace for trouble -- the worse the better. This long, detailed account of the early wagon trains headed west seems as if it should fit the bill nicely.

The Midwestern farmers who set out for California and Oregon in the 1840s had almost no notion what they were in for. "We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge," one pioneer declared. Forsaking their farms, these first settlers headed into the unknown. They feared wandering lost in the mountains, drowning in mighty rivers or dying of thirst in the desert. Above all, they quaked at the prospect of whooping savages descending on the wagon train to kill and torture. Reality proved less fraught.

The trail west was a slow-motion marathon, and dramatic moments were rare. The emigrants trudged 2,000 miles across an endless landscape, plodding next to their oxen at two miles an hour. For present-day writers, the daunting challenge is to bring life to an epic story that was not an epic adventure. Frank McLynn makes a game try. An old pro, McLynn has written books on the explorers Henry Stanley and Richard Burton, among many others, but this time out he has no swashbuckling heroes or last-second escapes from danger to rely on. He makes do with tricky river crossings and a buffalo stampede or two.

The dangers of the trip west were real, but even so, 96 of every 100 emigrants reached their destination safely. In an era ignorant of germs and infections, disease did most of the killing. Water was often scarce and sometimes putrid. (The pioneers' fondness for coffee proved lifesaving, though no one knew it, for coffee required boiled water.) The true specter haunting the trail was not the Comanches but cholera.

McLynn, an Englishman, is new to the West, but he turns this seeming liability into a strength; the West was new to the emigrants as well. Some sharp observations stem from questions that might not have occurred to an American writer. Why, for example, were the emigrants so restless? (It would not be a fish who would ask why the water is so wet.) "The American farmer was a completely different kind of animal from the European peasant," McLynn writes. "The European peasant looked on land as a lifetime investment; he was prepared to defer gratification, had a mystical relationship with it, waged vendettas and feuds over it. . . . The American farmer looked on it as a source of get-rich-quick wealth, wanted instant gratification and was prepared to move on if his present situation dissatisfied him."

But this is not a book of theory. McLynn is fond of facts, and Wagons West is best when it is most specific. McLynn instructs us on preparing honey-coated grasshoppers and on building a fire miles from the nearest tree (dig a trench three feet long, in line with the prevailing winds, and use buffalo chips for fuel).

The emigrants figured it out as they went along, and some of the lessons were excruciating. The best way to bury a child, for instance, was to drive the wagons over the gravesite, leaving no trace, so that human and animal scavengers would leave the bones in peace. McLynn does a fine job, too, of capturing the bad temper and irritability of a large group of weary, dirty, sick travelers stuck with one another for months on end. The length of the journey and the lack of privacy would have worn down even the most sociable of souls, and the emigrants were self-reliant characters accustomed to life on isolated farms. Picture the frayed nerves of a present-day family on a cross-country drive at 60 miles an hour, and then imagine making the same journey in the company of a hundred strangers, at speeds slower than a typical walking pace.

Much of this material is fascinating but familiar. McLynn devotes long chapters to the Donner party and the Mormon trek to Utah, for example, where he labors in the long shadows of Bernard DeVoto and Wallace Stegner. Two problems mar his presentation. Even though he thoroughly scanned other histories and combed through the emigrant journals, McLynn found few lively voices. He commends one diarist's incisive pen portraits, but they consist of little more than remarks that one emigrant was "a sleek-looking gentleman" and another was "more quick-tempered than any man I ever knew." We join the caravan west, but we find ourselves traveling with ciphers.

A second problem is structural. McLynn tells us of the first travelers to make the trip, in 1841, and then he tells us of the first large groups to make it, in 1843, and then he tells us of the 1844 emigrants and those of 1845. The result, as we approach such milestones as Chimney Rock yet again, is a sense of de{acute}ja{grv} vu out of "Groundhog Day." We, too, come to know what it is to yearn for journey's end. *

Edward Dolnick is the author of "Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon."