When I began Go West, Young Man, I was initially most excited to learn more about the Oregon Trail. However, as I continued to read about B.J. Hollars’ road trip to retrace the Oregon Trail with his six-year-old son, Henry, I found myself enjoying their journey just as much as the history of the Oregon Trail. Maybe even more! Though they had a strong connection prior to their journey, B.J. and Henry’s relationship flourishes, and it’s a joy to watch them make memories together.
Go West, Young Man is the quiet kind of adventure book I most enjoy with lots of humor, interesting stories and encounters with people B.J and Henry meet along the way, and captivating and detailed drawings courtesy of Henry. B.J. and Henry have a few bumps along the way – a rainstorm that almost carries their tent away, a little bit of car trouble, Henry reaching his “swale quota,” and trying to pack in too many miles each day – but these troubles are nothing compared to the difficulties the pioneers faced. While writing about the Mormon emigrants, B.J. states, “I’m ashamed to admit that this far into our journey, our idea of ‘prayers being answered’ has generally involved gas stations with slushy machines. Yet for God-fearing emigrants, unanswered prayers could mean a death sentence.”
B.J. and Henry have different perspectives of their experiences, and I think this is what really makes Go West, Young Man stand out. While Henry isn’t the history buff his dad is, Henry’s wonder shines a light on their journey and illuminates details his father may have missed without him. B.J.’s observations of Henry’s wonder add another layer to their journey. At one point, B.J. makes a snarky comment about the beautiful view, which is really just a parking lot filled with truckers, and Henry replies, “’you know…it really is.’” B.J. writes, “How desperately I wish I could still see the world as he does. And how embarrassed I am that I can’t.”
B.J. and Henry meet lots of interesting people along the way who take them down backroads and trails and share Oregon Trail stories. One of my favorite moments happens when B.J. and Henry accidentally stumble upon the descendants of Rebecca Winters while visiting her grave. Go West, Young Man includes a little bit of the most famous Oregon Trail stories, but it’s a lot of history for one book, and B.J. barely dips a toe in each significant historical moment he writes about (Trail of Tears, the Donner Party, and The Wounded Knee Massacre to name a few), but he provides an abundance of resources in his extensive bibliography for those wanting a deeper dive.
Near the beginning of their journey, B.J. writes that the Oregon Trail was a wound that is now a scar. I think books like Go West, Young Man are like the swales along the trail. By tracing the scar with Henry, B.J. is helping to keep the Oregon Trail a visible reminder of our past.