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...
(The entire section is 633 words.)