Summer was departing with reluctant feet

Letters of a Woman Homesteader

Letters of a Woman Homesteader
by Elinore Pruitt Stewart

This is something a bit unusual, and not a book I’d heard of a year ago, or one that there’s a whole lot of information about on the Internet, but it was recommended in the comments to one of my Little House reviews and it sounded like a very appropriate follow-up read, so I downloaded it to my Kindle. But then I spent a few months trying to catch up just a little bit on the teetering towers of unread (physical) books (not very successfully, I might add). It wasn’t until this month, with a few weekends away and a holiday, that I finally dusted off the Kindle and spotted this at the top of the list.

This book is essentially a memoir in the form of letters written, as the title suggests, by a woman homesteader in Wyoming in the early 20th century. Elinore, a widow, started writing to her friend and former employer, a Mrs Coney, in 1909 about the new life she was forging for herself and her daughter Jerrine in Burnt Fork. Coney started reading the letters out at social gatherings and, recognising their popular appeal, suggested she could get them a publisher. A publisher’s note at the start of the book states that little has been changed from the originals and I think this comes over in the tone.

“I am ashamed of my long letters to you, but I am such a murderer of language that I have to use it all to tell anything.”

Which makes this a perhaps not unique but certainly unusual and intriguing historical record, as well as a very well written account of an interesting life led by an intrepid woman who seems to define “can-do spirit”.

“Summer was departing with reluctant feet, unafraid of winter’s messengers, the chill winds.”

Because this is a collection of letters, details and events aren’t necessarily recounted in a logical start-to-finish way. For one thing, the relationship between the two women writing (though only Elinore’s half of the correspondence was published) clearly changes from a largely polite one to a much closer and trusting one, so a lot of the things that are more personal appear towards the end of the book, out of sequence. There also seem to be lots of questions in Coney’s letters that Elinore tries to address, and these sometimes hark back to earlier events.

(I should clarify that I am breaking my self-imposed rule of referring to authors by their surname because Elinore’s surname changes during the course of the book and also because she is a lead character as much as an author, which I think gives me some leeway.)

But what is the story? Well, Elinore says that she felt a yearning to get away from the city and live off the land and when she saw an advert about claiming land in Wyoming she knew that was for her. She initially worked as a cook and housekeeper out in Burnt Fork but filed her own claim for land and got working on it within days of her arrival, determined to prove herself. She quickly befriends the homesteading community and other “locals” and her letters are alive with social gatherings, visits and gossip. Which is no mean feat considering many of her new friends live more than a day’s ride away. There’s also some romance for Elinore (in the strictest matter-of-fact tone, unlike her accounts of others’ romances) but above all there’s adventure.

“I got sunburned, and my hands were hard, rough, and stained with machine oil, and I used to wonder how any Prince Charming could overlook all that in any girl he came to. For all I had ever read of the prince had to do with him ‘reverently kissing her lily-white hand,’ or doing some other fool trick with a hand as white as a snowflake.”

Just as I found with the Little House books, it’s sometimes hard to believe that the USA had large areas that were wild and dangerous as recently as the 20th century. Elinore, for all her common sense and practicality, is a bit of a thrill-seeker and loves to go along for the ride (or even lead the way) when there’s someone new to visit, or something new to do. She goes hunting, visits a Mormon bishop out of sheer nosiness (Burnt Fork is very near the state line with Utah) and even follows a police chase.

In some ways I feel I shouldn’t like Elinore. She’s so “just get on with it”, she’s gossipy and she shows no interest in art, books or music that I recall. She also replicates people’s accents in a slightly racist manner and I’m pretty sure she used the “n” word about a black man at one point. And yet I’d suggest it is impossible not to like her. She sees beauty in the world and in people, and proves herself a thoughtful, generous friend time and again.

“It seemed as if we were driving through a golden haze. The violet shadows were creeping up between the hills, while away back of us the snow-capped peaks were catching the sun’s last rays. On every side of us stretched the poor, hopeless desert, the sage, grim and determined to live in spite of starvation, and the great, bare, desolate buttes.”

She is also a great writer. Apparently she had supplemented her income before going out west by writing occasional newspaper articles and I wish more of her writing survived. I believe there is one further collection of letters to Mrs Coney that was published after this and I will certainly hunt that down, even though it was apparently far less successful than this first volume.

Published 1914 by Houghton Mifflin.

Source: Project Gutenberg.

The little cloud was glittering gold

On the Bakns of Plum Creek

On the Banks of Plum Creek
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Finally a Little House book that didn’t upset me politically and had plenty of story and good writing! This is the fourth book in the series, so this may contain spoilers if you are that rare breed like me and haven’t read the Little House books.

The Ingalls family have moved on to Minnesota, buying land from a Mr Hanson who wants to travel out west. Initially, they live in Hanson’s small dugout home, quite literally built into the banks of the creek, but Pa is certain that once he grows a good crop of wheat they can afford to build themselves a proper house and have all the treats they could dream of.

It’s clear from early on that Pa is setting himself up for a fall, especially when he borrows money in anticipation of the wheat crop, but I think that just shows how Wilder had developed as a writer by this point. Again, Laura’s age is not quite accurate to her real life as she is depicted as 7–9 years old rather than 4–5, which would actually make more sense of some details in the story. Laura and her big sister Mary are sent to school for the first time in their lives (they are only two miles from a small town) and while Mary can read and write already (having submitted to lessons from Ma), Laura can’t yet do either.

This really did have the best qualities of the previous two books. There are lovely descriptions of the landscape, both in good times and bad, there are interesting details about farming and housebuilding, there are Laura’s moments of naughtiness (Wilder has set herself up from book 1 as the wild child and Mary as the goodie goodie) and a stark contrast between the highs and lows that the family goes through. There are genuinely life-threatening times, standing beside Laura’s petty conflict with another girl at school.

“The sky was very faintly pink, then it was pinker. The colour went higher up in the sky. It grew brighter and deeper. It blazed like fire, and suddenly the little cloud was glittering gold. In the centre of the blazing colour, on the flat edge of the earth, a tiny sliver of sun appeared. It was a short streak of white fire. Suddenly the whole sun bounded up, round and huge, far bigger than the ordinary sun and throbbing with so much light that its roundness almost burst.”

Published 1937 by Harper and Brothers.

Source: Google Books.

There was only the enormous, empty prairie

Little House on the Prairie

Little House on the Prairie
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Strictly this is the third Little House book, but book 2 (Farmer Boy) is actually about Wilder’s husband’s childhood, not her own, so I thought I’d skip that one for now and follow the Ingalls family story.

This is pretty different from the first Little House book. From the first page there’s loads happening, with lots of genuinely fraught moments. The Ingalls family are travelling out west in a covered wagon because Indian land in Kansas is being opened up to settlers.

Now, this is the part I have a problem with politically, because the American Indians (the Osage tribe) are being moved on by the US government and their homeland handed out free to anyone who comes and stakes a claim. I know hindsight is a fine thing and all, but it’s not like the settlers don’t know the situation. In fact, they have – knowingly – jumped the gun and turned up before the deal is final and the American Indian have been moved on, because that way they can claim the best plot of land. But that means they have some trouble to deal with – they’re in the middle of nowhere, and the American Indian aren’t too happy with the presence of these settlers and don’t seem to speak English, so communication is fraught.

However, despite my political feelings (and they weren’t helped by the racism), this was a much more enjoyable read than Little House in the Big Woods. There’s a clear story arc, with difficulties overcome, character growth and then that crushing (though possibly redemptive) ending (I won’t spoil it for those who don’t know but you can fairly easily look it up if you’re curious). It felt better written and Wikipedia suggests that Wilder did more research for this book than the rest, because she was actually only 2–3 when she lived in Kansas, not the 6–7 depicted, but she wanted to get the details right. Which I found surprising, because the descriptions of the prairie itself were so evocative, they felt like the words of someone who really knew and loved that landscape.

“There was only the enormous, empty prairie, with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it, and birds flying up from it and singing with joy because the sun was rising. And on the whole enormous prairie there was no sign that any other human being had ever been there.”

It was also kinda fun discussing the book with Tim, who read this about 25 years ago yet remembers it surprisingly well! I’ll continue reading and reviewing the series over the next couple of weeks.

Published 1935 by Harper and Brothers.

Source: I think this was a present, but I’m not 100% sure as I didn’t write in the book at the time.