The Sweet Blue Distance

Image of The Sweet Blue Distance
Release Date: 
April 2, 2024
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The Sweet Blue Distance delivers an epic tale loaded with adventure, romance, and mystery . . .”

Revered as a master of American historical fiction, Sara Donati has outdone herself with her latest saga. The lead character, Carrie Ballentyne, is a descendant of the family introduced in Donati’s Wilderness series, and her story takes place in the pre–Civil War years on a trip across the continent from New York City to New Mexico Territory.

At first look, this tome-sized book might seem an intimidating read, but it’s divided into sections of different style, voice, and viewpoint that keep the story sparkling along. There are letters, a travel diary, and a straightforward narrative in Carrie’s perspective that sometimes switches to the that of her suitor-then-husband, Eli. In support of the historical elements, the book also provides a cast of characters and their families, maps, a glossary, and a bibliography.

The central storyline is Carrie’s acceptance of a position as nurse and midwife in Santa Fe—why she goes, how she gets there, and her experiences along the way. We share her train trip to St. Louis, then a steamer trip on the Missouri River, then a stagecoach and wagon train trip onto the plains to follow the Santa Fe Trail. What is slated to take months is interrupted when trackers arrive with a message from Carrie’s employer to expedite her arrival. At that she jumps astride a horse and rides the rest of the way accompanied by the trackers.

In Santa Fe she finds her employer and patients ominously different from what she was led to believe. Untangling their affairs and finding her own place in this strange, new land comprises the rest of the book.

At time of the story, a huge chunk of the Southwest had recently been won from Mexico, and the United States had to absorb that country’s peoples and history while itself expanding at a tremendous rate through Manifest Destiny. Immigrants abroad were flooding into the east while others were advancing west. Territories were becoming states and had to declare their positions about slavery, further fanning the fires that would erupt into the Civil War.

Meanwhile, native tribes were being wiped out or assimilated. Into these conflicts among Black, white, red, brown, and hybrid cultures comes Carrie Ballentyne: an independent, educated woman in an era of rigid gender and class roles; a mixed-race woman at home in both the city and the wilderness; a scientifically trained medical practitioner surrounded by ignorance and hostile religions. Nearly every step of her journey puts her up against the story’s theme of how bigotry, hypocrisy, and greed drive people to build and destroy societies.

Readers can’t help but notice how the mores and politics of Carrie’s world resonate with what’s happening today. On one hand, the story gives the depressing feel of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” On the other hand, the story inspires and empowers us through strong characters like Carrie and her family and associates. They demonstrate a pragmatic approach to troubles and dangers while living morally and courageously. They show how integration and integrity can work and move the world along in a positive direction.

The author’s experience as a historian and linguist, and corresponding devotion to research, brings authenticity to the places and actions in The Sweet Blue Distance. Ironically, this doesn’t apply 100 percent to dialogue and soliloquy. Two anachronisms popped out: the terms “racism” and to “have sex.” Both came into American use in the early 19th century so ring wrong for a mid-18th century novel. There may be other anachronisms but only this pair distracted this reader’s attention. So even though the events of the book give the “you are there” feel of the best historical fiction, it sometimes feels too modern in tone.

That aside, The Sweet Blue Distance delivers an epic tale loaded with adventure, romance, and mystery providing the four “E’s” that make a successful novel: entertainment, education, enlightenment, and emotional impact, personified by lovable and hatable characters. Add to these the story’s length, and readers will get a deep and compelling read.