The Undaunted

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Reviewed by Andrew Davis, Guest Writer

The Undaunted by Gerald Lund. Published by Deseret Book.

"Vee must go troo, even if vee cannot." These words from an old Danish pioneer tell us what we are supposed to understand about the most daring settlement mission attempted in the American West. In his new historical fiction book "The Undaunted" Gerald Lund puts us in the center of history once again, but he has the dual purpose of erasing the misconceptions that have developed around this heroic group over the last 130 years.

I had not read the "Work and the Glory" series, but having read "The Kingdom and the Crown," I had some experience with brother Lund's style. For character development, he places the fictional "McKenna" family in the San Juan Expedition, which was organized to make a Mormon presence on the San Juan river. The new settlement was expected to be a buffer against the wild and lawless elements that existed abundantly near the Four Corners in the late Nineteenth century. Lund carefully sets the stage with restless Utes, Paiutes, and Navajos (driven almost to extinction just a few years earlier) pitted against settlers, miners, rustlers, thieves, and explosive threat to peaceful, far-flung towns in Southern Utah. A convincing speech from Elder Erastus Snow is recreated, clarifying how Church leaders came to make such a great demand on those called to the mission. The obedient and faithful McKennas respond immediately to the call, ready to uproot from a prosperous Cedar City lifestyle and head into the unknown.

Enter the book's main character, David Draper. At this point in the book we've followed David and his father from the coalmines of Yorkshire, where they change their identities and make a daring escape from an oppressive life, to America where they find themselves almost arbitrarily in Utah. But while David's father has accepted the truth of the Restoration, David has no testimony when he is hired by the McKennas to help them reach the San Juan. As he endures the hardships, successes, and love that he finds on this impossible mission, David will come to realize what he wouldn't believe--that God has an interest in our lives.

The parallels to my own family are rich. My own father's grandfather was captured in the Civil War battle of Nashville, freed from the notorious Camp Douglas as part of the Galvanized Yankees, and sent West to guard the telegraph lines from Indians. He fled from the Union army, changed his identity (he chose the name "Davis"), and hid amongst the Mormon people. So Lund's story about these new "Drapers" seeking a new life in Southern Utah was unusually personal for this reader.

David Draper provides us with a witness to every turning point and character in the expedition, from the dangerous advance exploration through northern Arizona, to the nearly-fatal discovery of Salvation Knoll, to the bitter ascent of San Juan Hill. He is flabbergasted by the calling of the old Dane Jens Nielson--who was crippled as a result of his part in the Willie handcart company--as second counselor to the mission. Only a Willie pioneer could look at the obstacles they faced in crossing the Colorado and conclude that God needed them to try harder.

...And what obstacles! If you've traveled by jeep or by boat on Lake Powell to Hole-In-The-Rock (as our ward did for our 1985 Youth Conference) you can see the top half of the most audacious wagon road ever built. What a feat! I especially enjoyed the description of a wagon passenger's point of view during a descent. Ever rode shotgun in an SUV when the driver starts down a ridiculous grade? I found myself gripping the sofa cushions during that passage. On this and other pieces of the trail, Lund puts us in the middle of the trekker's deliberations to put some context on these greatly respected (yet often misunderstood) pioneers.

If you or your teen have an interest in Southern Utah's red rock country, old west history, pioneer families, American Indian culture, or just great adventure, you shouldn't miss this book.