Book Review: Letters Of A Woman Homesteader

Letters Of A Woman Homesteader, by Elinore Pruitt Stewart

This book, which I downloaded some time ago but just got around to reading, is a remarkable book about frontier life in rural Wyoming told by a fascinating woman. The letters themselves that make up the book, which are written by a housewife and homesteader to a former employer during the time when she was a widow and working as a laundress in Denver after her husband had died in a railroad accident to support herself and her young daughter, are written at some length and with a certain degree of skill. Included in the letters are gossipy details about polygamous Mormon neighbors, young women with a vaneer of accomplishments but rude personalities (some of them straight out of a Jane Austen novel), plenty of biblical and literary references, a gift of capturing dialect as well as a great deal of humanity and a lot of woes about bad health. One of the letters, a short thank you note for some books by the woman’s eldest daughter, is itself a fascinating example of writing by what must have been a very thoughtful and serious girl. The letters range from 1909 and are full of apologies for poor writing, being too long (many of them a foreboding 2000 words or more), and a great deal of indirect commentary, as well as confessions about a marriage and the death of her firstborn son.

What makes this book even more impressive, though, is the fact that it was written by a largely self-taught woman who grew up in Oklahoma (and considered herself a Southerner even when living in the West) whose writing is full of wit as well as a great deal of compassion for others. The stories relayed are stories of high drama–a bigamous Mormon bishop is shot, a man is shot before he can marry his pregnant girlfriend, leaving all of his property to his unborn daughter while his parents raise her after her mother dies soon after the girl is born, a horse thief sleeps in the same encampment as the author while on the run from a vengeful posse [1], and the author marries a decent and older widower in a bit of a rush only a few weeks after moving to Wyoming to become his housekeeper, while simultaneously dispensing advice that hardworking women who can handle solitude ought to claim their 160 acres of land for themselves rather than work as a drudge in the city. The author lives her advice, showing herself a good cook, a hardworking farmer who would have made my paternal grandmother proud, as well as an excellent seamstress.

The book, while not sentimental, is filled with a lot of incidents that show the cohesion of frontier society. Here we see people spending a great deal of time and effort to keep in touch with family members. We see women joining together to travel in some kind of safety, the hospitality of people towards strangers, successful efforts at matchmaking with shy but worthy neighbors, and one particularly touching story where a young woman who ran off with a Mormon missionary and had a lot of kids only to end up destitute while he drank away his income in town is helped by the neighborhood women who turn their scraps into clothing for her and her children. This book is the genuine article, a mixture of many different kinds of incidents of real life in remote territory, and also full of the reasons why this woman was successful in her search for a decent living as well as a good marriage–she has character, a great amount of humility, and is an immensely hard worker with a generous streak. Those are qualities that, whether in the early 1900’s or today, bode well for someone in life [2].

[1] This incident, and the language used by the author, are straight out of the Ox-Bow Incident:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/book-review-the-ox-bow-incident/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/03/17/few-people-are-successful-unless-a-lot-of-people-want-them-to-be/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Christianity, History, Love & Marriage and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Book Review: Letters Of A Woman Homesteader

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