Review from The Record, Evergreen Historical Society
by Elaine Hayden
This well-researched and constructed novel takes us on a journey with central character, Louisa, as she flees a restrictive Mennonite community in Ohio and travels to California, the Grand Canyon and on to Colorado. While not a placid journey, Jurgens succeeds in chronicling the physical and emotional perils that Louisa encounters in her search for a landing as Jurgens writes, “Now she was layered with toughness from the dry wind and the burning sun that streaked her hair. And she had an insatiable thirst for new experiences”. pg 309.
The period detail captured in Pat’s writing is evocative of the style of author, Sandra Dallas, as familiar landmarks, personalities and events are introduced that include the Harvey Girls; activist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Denver Union Station; the Brown Palace Hotel; Central City and the Indian Hot Springs. Finding herself in the West in 1900, Louisa soon realizes she fled a restrictive society only to encounter restrictions in the broader world that limited the rights of women in social and business settings. As Louisa advocates for women’s rights, she comes to realize that, “ In the West women have to be bolder, because they often find themselves on their own”. pg 216.
While the majority of Pat’s novel is set in the historical West, themes emerge as the resilience of women throughout history mirrors many challenges faced by women in contemporary society today. The complexities of Louisa’s family, various relationships and communities help to endear Louisa to the reader as she wends her way on an often perilous pilgrimage.
This is a novel you will want to add to your library and to gift. Well done, Pat!
Falling Forward is much more than a tale of a westward journey. At its heart is a story of how its female protagonist navigates a patriarchal society on the cusp of women’s suffrage during the turn of the 20th century.
Louisa Steinbacher is born into a strict Mennonite family on a farm in Ohio. But within her burns the craving to move beyond the prescribed female roles of mother and homemaker, roles she finds crushing. In search of her true self, she flees those rigid religious and societal straightjackets and heads West, where she must deal with the painful challenges of being swept up in two movements: westward expansion and the fight for women’s empowerment.
Along the way, she is married, widowed and courted again. She is oppressed and abused, but recovers, stronger than before. All the while, she wavers between the need for security that the traditional roles offer and the self-sufficiency society frowns upon. The tension between the two compulsions keeps the story moving quickly in unexpected directions until its resolution.
Jurgens skillfully integrates into this intensely personal struggle a realistic and colorful narrative of a West that is in transition from the wild and woolly to a modernizing and urbanizing world on the threshold of automobiles and airplanes. Before arriving there, readers are stylishly immersed in the hardscrabble farm life of “springhouses,” “haymows” and “singletrees” and a land where “Tall grasses leaned and swayed, crossing their stems like young girls dancing in gay abandon.”
This story provides a measure of how far we have come from a time when women were denied the franchise and fundamental rights now available. It is an engaging slice of history that reminds readers of the personal costs that civil rights pioneers paid to realize those blessings.
2020 Reader’s Favorite
By Viga Boland
I so admire authors who can take a piece of history and create a wonderful ‘herstory’ around it. That’s what Pat Benedict Jurgens has done with Falling Forward: A Woman’s Journey West, her story of Louisa, a courageous and sometimes feisty member of a Mennonite community back in 1897. While Louisa loves and respects her austere, hard-working father, a community elder, after her mother dies Louisa is forced into looking after her siblings and the household needs. She does so unbegrudgingly, but after marrying a non-Mennonite and becoming increasingly unhappy with the restrictions of her community, she and her beloved husband leave to make their future elsewhere. The move proves fatal in more ways than one and Louisa finds herself raising her two children alone. But if nothing else, Louisa is resourceful. She is also a free thinker and believes what men can do…like run a business… she can do. She opens a successful bakery and joins other forward-thinking women looking to gain equality. But the men are there at every turn, doing their best to oppose such women and make sure they know their place.
There is so much more to the plot than what I’ve outlined here. The rest is for you to discover and enjoy. I was enlightened about the hardships families, and especially women, faced at the turn of the century and I particularly enjoyed learning about the Mennonite community. Pat Benedict Jurgens’ characterization skills are excellent: readers feel at one with Louisa and those around her. The dialogue flows easily, setting descriptions are vivid, and the pace is beautifully controlled. And if you think you can predict the ending, think again. It took me by surprise! Falling Forward is a superb historical fiction novel that will be especially appealing to female readers. If you’re looking for something to help you escape today’s harsh realities, try Falling Forward with Louisa to a better future.
2020 Reader’s Favorite
By Bernadette Diane Anderson
Falling Forward: A Woman’s Journey West by author Pat Benedict Jurgens tells the story of a 17-year-old girl pushed into dealing with situations brought about by those around her. Facing life after the death of her mother, she is left to care for her siblings and her father who is a respected elder in their religious community, which itself begins her tragic course of life. The young Louisa marries and follows her husband’s dream of a better future in another part of America in the late 1890s, away from her roots. But even on the journey, their problems begin and things soon start to get worse. Louisa and husband Thomas, along with their beloved children Daniel and Mattie, begin their new adventure into the future, living in a tent with dreams of much better times ahead. However, little by little the dream once chased ebbs away after troubles and hardships get underway. Follow Louisa as she fights her way through pain, suffering, drama, tragedy, and lost love, making decisions that will define her future forever.
In Falling Forward, Pat Benedict Jurgens shows how a person’s life can fall forward into happiness or tragedy very easily and defines how life was lived in a tight-knit community at the turn of the 1800s. The author brings history to life in this well written, easy-paced drama. You get a good idea of the strength and determination needed to survive the harshness of those times with its prejudices and closed-minded attitudes that caused so much pain and suffering. The characters are well defined, helping you to either love or loathe them, and you get the feeling of wanting revenge and justice to be meted out to those who make others’ lives difficult and harsh for the innocent ones around them. Describing people, places, and situations with a great deal of depth and clarity ensures that you will enjoy and truly understand this amazing story, making you feel a part of it. With a twist in the tale, you are left wanting more!
Carolyn Evans Campbell
author of Fireweed, a Woman’s Saga in Gold Rush America
“I really enjoyed the read, and looked forward to my nighttime settling in with your story. I thought the writing was so good, the details and history exceptional. You have done such a fabulous job- great writing. I love the story, the characters, the great sense of the west and place. I am always with you in the scene and the action. The dialogue is compelling and logical. Strong research and accuracy. I even checked on the timeline of the word hobo, thinking it was a Depression word. You were right…I liked the characters and episodes all intertwined with the theme. The love story and logic of sequences were terrific. The scenes and writing including imagery, place and dialogue were also great, really wonderful in places. Congratulations.”
Midwest Book Review
Falling Forward, a Woman’s Journey West is coming-of-age literary fiction at its best and follows the saga of seventeen-year-old Louisa, a Mennonite farm girl living in 1890s Ohio.
Her dreams of travel and adventure seem impossible when her mother dies in childbirth, leaving her to care for her younger siblings as her father struggles to keep the farm running.
When he hires Thomas, an outsider to the Faith, to help on the farm, Louisa finds everything changed not just by her attraction to him, but the differences between her strict Mennonite upbringing and the challenges he poses to them as an outsider with very different beliefs and perspectives on life and God.
When her loving father agrees to their union, Louisa and Thomas thus begin their own journey, making many discoveries about themselves and each other along the way. They are challenged to create a life together in a community that has shunned them.
Pat Benedict Jurgens brings the times to life, as well as introducing the foundations of a Mennonite household and its Germanic heritage. Her attention to detail includes dialogue between father and daughter which captures these foreign flavors while keeping the story understandable: “I haf lost face in de church, but still haf my daughter. Vith a strong-headed girl like you, dat is victory.” She looked up with an uncertain smile, but didn’t say anything. “Nineteen years you are, a voman grown, and one who knows her own mind.” Louisa’s fingers stopped sewing to take in his words: “I hope it nein vill land you in too much trouble.”
When yet another tragedy strikes, the headstrong and determined Louisa is challenged to continue her foray into the world alone: “…outdoors in the natural world, grass along the walk greened, crocuses and then daffodils pushed their way up from the earth. The scent of earth and early blossoms permeated the air. Looking at the buds on the big cottonwood tree in the yard, Louisa saw the world awakening. Gradually she began to feel that life was for living.”
Jurgens adds many observations about women’s roles during this era, in these wild places and times: “A woman’s livelihood hinged on either having a husband or enough money to be independent.” But Louisa is not the kind of woman to remain quietly true to her assigned role even as a bank president stymies her proposal: “I don’t doubt your capability, Miss. And I admire your enthusiasm, but starting a business is a man’s job. If your husband were alive, I doubt that he’d agree to your ambitions. I understand you need to make a living, but perhaps something you could do at home would be more seemly. A store run by a woman? Pardon me, but a man’s head for commerce is needed for an endeavor of this magnitude.”
Readers who anticipate the journey of another pioneer girl will find this coming-of-age story offers so much more as Louisa’s ventures in the West evolve from travel to business to enter another forbidden circle, politics, which brings with it a blossoming women’s suffrage movement.
All these elements are presented in a warm, involving story that is a delight to read. The personal growth of a homebody and feisty girl into a determined woman who falls into a role of advocating for social change is well done and compelling.
Women’s fiction readers who seek more than adventure alone will welcome Louisa’s story of social, political, and personal transformation.
—Diane Donovan, Midwest Book Review, May 2021
Loved it! 😍
That synopsis only scratches the surface of this book. Louisa makes several important choices in her life that affect her deeply.
Falling Forward, a Woman’s Journey West, is about a greater journey than just traveling west from Ohio. The shifts in self-awareness and confidence that happen as Louisa Steinbacher lives her life create a compelling story. From the beginning, I was entranced by Louisa. The story of a Mennonite girl struggling against the restrictions of her faith seemed rather trite, but it’s only a small part of the story. Louisa falls in love and marries out of her faith, which causes her to be shunned by her community. Later she leaves her widowed father, little sister, and adult brothers and travels across the country with her husband and young children. Everything that happens to her after that requires Louisa to shore up her strength and move her life in a different direction. Louisa proves to be a resilient woman capable of caring for herself and her family.
The different scenarios: with the Mennonites, the train ride out west, in California, and the Grand Canyon, all seem like separate unconnected events that are initially told rather sparsely. The setting descriptions are well done, but the character development could be stronger. I would have liked to see more of what Louisa was thinking, of how the experiences were changing her, and how they related to the overall story. Later, all of this is well wrapped up, but it would have been nice to have a bit of it sooner. It’s when Louisa finally arrives in Colorado that she truly blossoms. The incidents she’s experienced come back to haunt her or support her, and she grows as a result. Her life isn’t all rosy, however. She has to deal with her sister’s death, a family secret, her brother-in-law’s disappearance, starting a business, espousing unpopular women’s rights ideas, being committed to a sanitarium, and attentions from men both welcome and unwelcome. Every setback makes Louisa stronger, and that is an excellent message for readers. I enjoyed this book very much.
—Linda Ulleseit, Reedsy Discovery