O America: Discovery in a New Land

“It should not be denied … that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.” —Wallace Stenger

Few American authors have embodied the sentiment expressed in novelist Wallace Stenger’s quote within their own writing better than William Least Heat-Moon.

Heat-Moon’s latest book, O America: Discovery in a New Land certainly makes the grade, although it is of a very different stripe than his previous books. First of all, O America is a novel, his second to date, and it takes place in 1848. The story chronicles the journey of fictional doctor Nathaniel Trennant and his traveling companion Nicodemus, an escaped slave. The pair travel overland by foot, horse, and stage, as well as by boat while fleeing, in a word, from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations.  The book is laid out in journal format, narrated by Nathaniel, and with dated entry breaks to give the reader a clear sense of the story’s chronology.

Heat-Moon’s mastery of the nineteenth century voice is evident from the first page. Here the narrator reflects on a funeral at sea: “The little family’s voyage of great promise had come down to an accident, a reflex, and a decision, leading to three beginnings towards new life terminated even before we had crossed the tenth meridian.”

The narrative is also aided by the fact that its author has physically visited each location described within it. Combined with comprehensive historical research, that creates a transportive story. Contemporary readers will find Heat-Moon’s vision of 1848 America both strange and disturbingly familiar, and there will be plenty of aspects of “the American experiment” to consider along the way.

338 Pages, fiction, University of Missouri Press, hardcover, $29.99