This novel may be characterized as “lighter” than some of Beatty’s books, especially her later works about war. It repeats a theme used in such earlier books as Lucy Makes a Match (1979) and That’s One Ornery Orphan (1980)—a heroine who breaks away from traditional female roles and tries to deal with the challenging life of the American West. In this case, the young protagonist shares center stage with her mother. In a time when women “in britches” are not considered natural and when social mores forced women to marry, the trip is a quest for self-actualization by Mrs. Ashmore. While Fayette’s belief that they can survive without a male protector is not validated, both female characters become more self-reliant because of the experience.
Although Beatty’s main purpose is to present an historically accurate story, Eight Mules from Monterey is also a tribute to her profession for she worked as a librarian at various sites before becoming a full-time writer. The power of reading and books and the great contributions that libraries and librarians make to society is a message interwoven in the story. Many plot problems are solved by conducting research in the books that the family is transporting. Ill-tempered and unfeeling figures in the novel are characterized as nonreaders. Mrs. Ashmore leaves a book of Bible stories “with uplifting pictures” for the moonshiners. Fayette, like Johanna Spyri’s title character in Heidi (1884), a book that she has recently read, travels to the...
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From her first publication, Indian Canoemaker (1960), to her last book, Who Comes with Cannons?, published by her estate in 1992, Beatty combined more than fifty adventure stories with accurate historical detail. While some of Beatty’s earlier works, written in collaboration with her first husband, were set in England, Eight Mules from Monterey demonstrates her interest in American historical themes and her love of her adopted state of California.
Beatty’s greatest fascination was with the American Civil War, and her novels that explore life during that period are her most compelling. When the mountain people whom the Ashmores meet talk about war, they are referring to that conflict. In I Want My Sunday, Stranger (1977), a young Mormon boy looking for his horse follows a photographer from battle to battle. Turn Homeward, Hannalee (1984) and its sequel, Be Ever Hopeful, Hannalee (1988), look at life during and after the war from a Southern girl’s perspective. Charlie Skedaddle (1987), which won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, chronicles the change of heart of a twelve-year-old Yankee drummer boy who could not wait to get into battle but deserts his regiment after the first enemy encounter. Jayhawker (1991) tells of a Kansas boy who carries on his abolitionist father’s work.
Patricia Beatty truly puts the “story” in “history.” Her books are always cited in major textbooks on children’s literature as worthy examples of historical fiction, and they have won various awards. While her main characters are protected from the stark realism that is a growing trend in children’s books, Beatty left a legacy of books that inform young people about the past in an entertaining manner.