Friday, June 24, 2011

Musings: Letters of a Woman Homesteader

I have been inspired this year to read many books on the women's experience.  I also have been downloading a bunch of free books to my Amazon Kindle because I don't have any physical books with me in New York.  These two criteria combined in fortuitous circumstances recently, making me aware of the book Letters of a Woman Homesteader, a collection (available for free online!) of letters written by Elinore Pruitt Stewart about her first several years homesteading in Wyoming at the turn of the 20th century.

This book was fantastic!  It's similar to the Little House series of books, except for adults.  Elinore (I should probably refer to her as Stewart, but I felt such a connection with her that I'm sure she wouldn't mind me using her first name) has such an engaging way with words.  She is one of those people who writes her letters with a very distinct and fun tone, making you feel like she is right there with you telling the story.  I think her personality shines through in the letters and she is just so fun and bright and optimistic that it was a delight to spend time with her and her family and get to know her better. 

Almost every time I read a book set at the start of the 20th century, I am amazed at how much has changed so quickly.  Elinore did so much stuff.  She grew a garden, she milked cows, made preserves, raised three children, took unplanned trips, helped deliver a baby and shot and skinned her own dinner.  Very early on in the book, she describes taking her daughter Jerrine (an unfortunate name, to be sure) out in the morning because she just wanted to take a trip.  They just saddled up their horse, took a gun and a pan, and then set out into the wilderness for a few days, living on the land.  I can't imagine just getting up and doing that, mostly because I have no sense of direction.  I am continuously amazed by how these isolated homesteaders found each other, out there in the forests and mountains.  And then, after finding each other once, managing to do it again without any roads or distance markers or ways to call for directions or anything.  I get stressed out if I can't find a subway station.

So yes, Elinore is a very independent woman, and it's so fun to go on adventures with her.  She makes it seem as though she lived in a bustling town, full of daily visits from friends and all sorts of interesting trips to keep her occupied.  In reality, though, her letters are written months apart, and I'm sure that much of the time, she and her family were pretty isolated.  She seemed well able to occupy her time, though.

What also stood out to me was how the concept of education has changed.  Elinore says that she is uneducated, never having finished school.  But even though she lived in a city as an adult (not sure where she grew up), she knew how to plant vegetables, harvest flowers, mow the lawn (using a horse!), shoot and pluck a bird, cook and preserve food, sew clothing and a host of other things.  It bothers me that even though she had so much knowledge in those things, she was still considered uneducated.  I think we really need to change our definition of the word to include people like Elinore, who are almost entirely self-sufficient.

I admit that in reading these letters, I wasn't sure how much was true and how much was false.  Elinore seems the sort who would exaggerate for the benefit of the story.  I'm not complaining at all because I was thoroughly engaged in the story, but I did sometimes wonder if everything was true.  At the same time, though, some events are not explained very well, or people are not introduced in a manner that makes sense, making it seem very much like letters being written rather than plots being developed.  What was interesting is the way that Elinore would tell her friend that she would mention a story in a later letter- and then take months to write that later letter, describing the event.  So there is a massive lag in event happening and story being shared.

Elinore also only tells her friend about some pretty important events in her life very late in the letters (such as only mentioning her marriage about a year after it took place!), which was surprisingly upsetting to me.  It felt as though she was holding information back and if she would lie or just skimp on information in some things, what was to keep her from lying about other things?  I wasn't sure, at the end of the book, if I actually knew what Elinore's life was really like or if I just knew about the life she wanted to project.  My suspicions were only heightened when I learned here that Elinore claimed to be a widow but there are "indications" that her first husband hadn't died.  She has pretty strong opinions on polygamy in this story, so it would be quite ironic if she herself had two husbands!

But Elinore was such an evangelist for homesteading and for the state of Wyoming.  She clearly loved her life, and made so many wonderful friends in the backwoods.  I liked her so, so much that I was always taken aback when she said something upsetting, usually a glancing reference to race.  It bothers me that someone I came to like so much, and who was so kind and generous to her friends, might not be very likeable or kind or generous to people who were not white.  I think that is a struggle I often have- it's hard for me to see that someone who is so good and sweet at heart and always hope for the best could at the same time think that there exists a racial hierarchy.  It's not as though Elinore ever says anything outright that could be offensive, and I know that the N-word was used differently in the past, but I got the feeling that she wasn't exactly fighting for civil rights, and it saddened me.

But I don't want to leave you with a sour taste in your mouth.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.  In a way, not quite trusting Elinore through the story was a great lesson in history.  We tend to take primary sources as pretty strong evidence, but when letters are being sent over many miles, many months apart, to someone you know you'll never see again...who knows?

I was delighted to find that this book has a sequel that is also available for free download!  It's called Letters on an Elk Hunt, and I have already downloaded it and am looking forward to once again spending time with Elinore and her friends.

Click here for a taste of Elinore's writing style (and an audio recording of one of her letters, as read by someone else).  The full text of her letters is available on Amazon and here.


  1. This sounds like a wonderful book! I love reading about homesteaders and am currently reading Little House in the Big Woods to my oldest son. This sounds like a book for me to read.

    I really enjoyed your review as it really seems like you loved the book.

    I am always unsettled myself when I happen upon racist remarks by favorite authors. On the positive side, things have changed a lot for the better in that regards in the past 150 years!

  2. I read this last year and really enjoyed it, so I'm delighted to learn there's a sequel!

    And I loved reading your thoughts on it. :) I find reminders of institionalised racism unsettling as well (and The Colored Girl Beautiful, a nonfic book by an African American at the turn of the century was my most recent 'reminder'), and I can't help but wonder what readers/viewers (in the case of movies/tv) a hundred years from now will be jarred by. Anyway, I think it's important to note the racism of older authors & books; not that we should dismiss all of their writings because of it, but we shouldn't turn a blind eye either. There's something to be said for bearing witness, eh?

    I'm not sure if these ramblings even make sense; I haven't had my tea yet.

  3. Sounds fascinating!
    But yes how on earth did anyone find each other? Sure I can go into a forest and find my way out of it. But in a forest that stretches on for days..not so much

  4. Laura - This would be a great book to read for yourself after the Little House series. Such a great view of rural life, perhaps a bit idealized, but nonetheless valuable.

    Eva - Your ramblings always make sense! I think you're right that it's important to bear witness and point out things that are not ok. And it's interesting the way you say people will look back and think about what we do today. I remember thinking recently about Looney Tunes characters and the racial stereotypes they portray...

    Blodeuedd - AGREED.

  5. Ok, it's not like I needed that much enticement after reading your review, but I went ahead and downloaded these two books for my Kindle as I was perusing your review. You make some interesting points about the truthfulness of the author, and the way she seems to hide things within the parceling out of her letters. I think I would have to conclude that this author was just a big proponent of homesteading, and may have wrote these books in the vein of someone who wants to sort of proselytize about the homesteading experience. I am now very curious to read these two books and see what I make of them for myself. This was a great and very balanced review, Aarti, and very pleasant to read!

  6. I've been especially fascinated with books that take me out of my everyday life and plant me squarely in another time and place. I first felt this rush of enjoyment when I read Little House in the Big Woods as a 6th grade, so this sounds like a fun adventure that might provide the same sense of reading pleasure as an adult.

    Thanks for a great review, Aarti!

  7. Zibilee - Oh, great! I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on them and whether you get the same feeling I do. She definitely wanted more women to come homesteading, and that came through in her letters.

    Andi - Yes, if you enjoyed Little House books, you'll like this one. TOTALLY fascinating to read about such a different way of life.

  8. This sounds great! Must have a look at it and the delightfully named sequel (I do love books with quirky titles). I enjoyed the Little House series very much, they were much more down to earth than I'd been expecting. Thanks for this recommendation.

  9. It is interesting to think about! And I just read a book, The Honour Code, about how socially accepted practices can change v quickly, so I'm especially conscious of it right now. I firmly believe people in a couple hundred years will be horrified by 'factory farming' and the way food animals were treated. ;)

  10. I love reading first-person accounts by pioneers and homesteaders in the 1800's and this sounds like a book I would really enjoy. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I'll definitely look it up.

  11. This does sound fascinating! I think it is amazing what women did "back in the day." Us modern women would be ill-equipped to do a tenth of what they did...and we call ourselves educated! I'm pretty sure I would be a terrible homesteader ... but I'm sure I'd NEVER be bored (or have any leisure time either.) Great reivew.

  12. Book-hound - I know, the sequel sounds great, doesn't it? I can't wait to get to it.

    Eva - You just keep adding to my wish list! The Honor Code went right on there.

    Simcha - Absolutely, I hope you are able to find and enjoy it.

    Jenners - So true. I think we *are* educated, but it's important to note that book smarts aren't the only smarts around, and there's a lot to be learned from living off the land.

  13. This sounds so interesting! You know I'm a sucker for anything epistolary, be it novels or books of actual letters. Also, I think you make a great point about primacy sources not necessarily being 100% reliable - everyone tells THEIR version of history, after all.

  14. She sounds pretty interesting. I don't know how those women didn't go out of their minds - there was an awful lot of that - they called it prairie madness. Imagine being so far from everyone most of the time. And I'm a hermit.

    That casual racism and sexism really brings me up short. I try not to let it ruin a book for me, (if it's old enough) but it's difficult sometimes.

  15. This sounds like a great book! I love frontier stories and I'm sure I would love this!

  16. Anonymous11/19/2011

    This sounds fascinating. I'm going to be reading the Little House series starting the week after Thanksgiving. Perhaps I can get to this too - for a different perspective. Nice review!

  17. Anonymous12/30/2011

    Aarti, I would suggest you read this book (below) to get a greater understanding about Elinore Pruitt Stewart. It will tell you more personal details about her and her life. I also was taken aback of her use of the N-word but it wasn't until I found this book that explain why she did use it. It goes back to her loving Southern grandmother, born in Arkansas.

    The Adventures of the Woman Homesteader: The Life and Letters of Elinore Pruitt Stewart by Susanne K. George
    Paperback: 218 pages
    Publisher: Bison Books (January 1, 1993)
    Language: English
    ISBN-10: 0803270429
    ISBN-13: 978-0803270428


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