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.