Reviewed by Kari Heil
A dear friend recently gave me the non-fiction book Letters of a Woman Homesteader (1914) as a gift, and I recommend it if you really could use a healthy dose of optimism and an extra shot of affirmation right about now, in the middle of winter. Do you lack motivation? Maybe Letters of a Woman Homesteader will pick you up and drop-kick you into your next endeavor, whatever it may be. You can find an unabridged audiobook version of Letters of a Woman Homesteader at the Octavia Fellin Public Library, but if you’d rather read than listen, I’m happy to loan my copy.
Though the book might be enjoyed by more women than men, I think it tells a story both women and men can appreciate, and any man or woman who reads it surely will admire its enterprising and intrepid author/heroine, Elinore Pruitt Stewart. Yes, she is the hero of her own story, as she should be! If you take into account that the experiences Stewart wrote about in her letters were quite unusual and her position quite daring for a woman of her time, the book is even more inspiring. Did these things really happen as she tells about them? Or did she embellish the stories of her actual experiences? Who knows? And who cares, really. Her stories are engaging, and she tells them well, and in what seems to me a good spirit.
Letters of a Woman Homesteader is a collection of letters Stewart wrote to her friend and former employer, Mrs. Coney, between 1909 and 1913, during Stewart’s first years living on a ranch in Wyoming and staking her own claim there. These are letters like none you or I ever have received, I’m fairly certain – tales spun for the pleasure of the reader, each one crafted with attention to detailed setting, plot, and character development. In fact, the letters are so well written, and so novelistic, that sometimes it’s hard to believe they were written by a woman with very little formal education and with no intent to publish. Stewart’s keen, insightful observations of the natural world and the people around her make her writing rich and satisfying.
The letters are full of funny and heartwarming anecdotes about Stewart’s quirky neighbors and friends: a gnarly old Southern gentleman who plays the fiddle, a staunch Irishwoman who helps with the wallpaper, scared cowboys and new mothers, and a charming French fur trapper. Stewart writes about the people she knows with affection and compassion. Some of the letters report on her most thrilling adventures camping in winter, getting lost in the mountains, and nearly missing villainous horse thieves. She has quite a knack for telling colorful, lively stories!
Through all the letters, Stewart conveys an unflappable positive attitude. In spite of hardships and impediments, she makes the most of what she’s got and gets where she wants to go – or gets adjusted to where she’s gotten, maybe. She passionately believes in the merit of a bright outlook and honest effort, and she hopes to encourage other women to follow in her footsteps and stake their own claims in the West. In some of her letters to Mrs. Coney, Stewart calls her experience as a woman filing and making good on her claim an experiment – one she is convinced could be replicated successfully by any woman with some gumption and a steady willingness to work.
Stewart asserts quite vehemently her own preference for the work of the ranch and homestead over any low-paid work a woman could do in a city in the first part of the twentieth century. Her letters are brimming with verve and vitality. This woman has pluck: she endures harsh conditions, challenging circumstances, personal tragedy, unending physical labor – and she manages to laugh nearly every step of the way, it seems. The letters show both Stewart’s strength of character and her sense of humility, despite her considerable achievements in establishing her own place in what most would have considered a man’s world.
Stewart writes in her letters quite a bit about her beloved rangeland and mountains of southwest Wyoming, so far removed from Denver, the stifling city she escaped. She adored the wide-open space, the air, the sky. I like her lavish descriptions of red rock canyons, stark mesas (buttes, as she calls them), dusty expanses of rabbitbrush and sage, gracious cottonwoods, and higher up, quaking aspen turning yellow in the fall. The place she came to call home seems to share some common features with the place I have come to call home, and its familiarity makes her stories even more appealing to me. I recognize the place she describes; I can picture her there so clearly.
There’s one page of Stewart’s book that I dog-eared so that I could go back and re-read it, a passage that gets at the heart of what I most want to remember about this remarkable, resilient woman. She imagines that Mrs. Coney must worry about her out on the rough range, far from the comforts of the city and civilization, so she writes: “It is true, I want a great many things I haven’t got, but I don’t want them enough to be discontented and not enjoy the many blessings that are mine . . . When I think of it all, I wonder how I can crowd all my joy into one short life,” (pp. 191-192). I want to remember Elinore Pruitt Stewart’s contentment and joy in every little, difficult, beautiful thing.
For the Kiddos
We’re still really into picture storybooks at our house, and The Pink Refrigerator (2007) by Tim Egan is a pretty amusing one with a valuable message. We like the soft, detailed ink and watercolor illustrations with the muted color palette. We also like the quiet, eccentric little mole, Dodsworth, Egan’s unlikely hero. Dodsworth’s life is downright boring, and he likes it that way – he thinks. He runs an antique shop, and he loves to watch TV and do nothing most of the day. I think we all – even the most energetic and adventurous of us – can identify with this sentiment in some respects or at certain times. The story gets much more interesting, however, when Dodsworth discovers a magical pink refrigerator at the junkyard and starts trying new activities, daring to make an effort, taking risks. Through his strange relationship with this very special large appliance, Dodsworth discovers that he likes to do lots of different things more than he likes to do nothing.