Westward to Home: Joshua's Oregon Trail Diary Discussion Guide
About this book
To The Discussion Leader
Through Joshua's diary author Patricia Hermes takes young readers for an adventurous journey on the Oregon Trail in 1848. Joshua and his family dream of free fertile land, new opportunities, and a new home. That dream is tempered with the sacrifices these dreamers were called upon to make along the way. Joshua writes of runaway wagons, accidental drownings, brutal weather, diseases, and death. In the end, Joshua, his family, and friends see their dream come true as they cross the Cascade Mountains and revel in the beauty and promise of Oregon.
Readers joining Joshua on the trail also learn important history and geography lessons as they are exposed to terms, people, and places like Manifest Destiny, the Continental Divide, President Polk, Mormon leader Joseph Smith, and Independence Rock. But, Westward to Home: Joshua's Diary is much more than an adventurous piece of historical fiction. It is really the story of the human emotions attached to leaving home and starting all over. Patricia Hermes has had much experience uprooting a family and moving from one part of the United States to another. She says that when she wrote Joshua's diary, she relied at least in part on the experiences of her four sons. She says, "Today, though we are spared the trials of the early settlers, there is still the deep loneliness and loss that one feels when leaving behind one's home and family and friends. In the end, Joshua was able finally to overcome all the hardships of the move. And when settled in his new land, he began to feel at home — as we have."
"Oregon or Bust," "Manifest Destiny," or "Going Home?" What should Pa paint on their wagon? Ma wants to wait until they get to Oregon to see if it really feels like home. It is 1848, and nine-year-old Joshua McCullough and his family are joining a wagon train in St. Joseph, Missouri and traveling to the Oregon territory to claim free land and build a home. To Joshua it seems like a great adventure. Surrounded by his relatives and other travelers, Joshua says, "We now have our own little neighborhood," and he is eager to get started. Finally, the long train of 100 wagons gets moving. Joshua meets some children his own age, and being with them makes the trip more enjoyable. Then, an accident claims the life of an older man and his pet dog; people begin to die from cholera; and Joshua's own little cousin, Rachel, is strangled when her nightgown gets caught in the wagon axle. There is dust, rain, and hail on the prairie, and then cold and ice as the wagons cross the Continental Divide and the Cascade Mountains. The constant fear of an Indian attack becomes real when five missing scouts are found killed by arrows.
Still, Joshua sees things he'd never seen before including great herds of buffalo. Six months after leaving Missouri, the wagon train reaches Oregon. Joshua says, "We seem to be on top of the world, the wind blows and the leaves dance. It's so different from St. Joseph. It's green now, even in October." As the family puts up their tent, with their new found friends settling nearby, they agree to paint on their wagon, "Home. We are home." And Joshua agrees, "Those are the best words ever."
Thinking About the Book
- Look back at the first part of Joshua's diary before the trip west. Not everyone had the same reaction about going to Oregon. Discuss the reasons each of the main characters gave for staying in Missouri or for heading west.
- The book is titled Westward to Home. On page 90 Joshua writes, "Home? We left our home behind." What does "home" mean to him? How does his definition of "home" change by the end of the diary?
- Why did the wagon train have to wait until the grass "greened up" before starting out?
- Define the following. Why is each term important in Joshua's diary?
- People who traveled on wagon trains together for a long time became like family members. What examples are there in the story of people helping each other out in times of trouble and pulling together? What examples can you think of where people help each other now, in modern times?
- If you had just one word to describe Joshua, what would that word be? Why?
- What do you think was the best part and the worst part of Joshua's trip? Explain.
- What do you think was the bravest thing Joshua did on the journey?
- On page 11, Joshua describes what his family packed in their wagon. There was not enough room to take everything they wanted to take. If you were only allowed to take three things that meant a lot to you, what would you choose and why?
- In his June 26th diary entry, Joshua writes that he dreamed of food, especially eggs. Take a survey of your discussion group. Ask these people if they have ever dreamt of food. If they did, what food was it? Compile your survey results and share with the group.
- Along with food, bedding, and furniture, Joshua's mother packed such medicines as quinine, laudanum, castor oil, hartshorn, and Epsom salts. Look up these medicines. Make a chart showing what each remedy was used for and what the modern remedy is for the same medical problem.
- One of the famous landmarks along the way was Independence Rock. See a picture of Independence Rock here. Many travelers carved their names or other messages on this rock. Joshua writes that on July 6, they reached Independence Rock but, "We are too tired to celebrate." If you had been on a wagon train, what would you have written on Independence Rock? Write a diary entry telling about climbing up Independence Rock and carving your message.
- Look at a map of the Oregon Trail route and see the route that Joshua's family took. Where was the halfway point of the trail? Which do you think was the hardest half of the journey? Why? Check out some of the landmarks on the Oregon Trail.
- Joshua mentions a musical instrument the men on the trail called hog fiddles. See what you can find out about these hog fiddles or dulcimers. What did they look like? Invite someone to come to class and demonstrate how this instrument is played. Can you find any recordings of dulcimer music for your discussion group to hear?
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.