“Brave Hearted: The Women of the American West,” by Katie Hickman (Spiegel and Grau)
A generation ago, publishers discovered that women (as well as men) went West — and as something more than whores and Madonnas. They found the women’s stories and journals were worth printing. Since then, hundreds of narratives, reminiscences and general histories of westering females have been issued.
There’s not much new in “Brave Hearted.” Still, the book is well written and should be of interest to a new generation discovering that men weren’t the only heroes of the westward movement.
Author Katie Hickman concentrates the first part of the book on the well-known story of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, who went to Oregon in 1836 as missionaries to the Flathead Indians. Twelve years later, the couple was murdered by those would-be converts. For 100 years, the pair were considered heroes, but revisionist history has not been kind to them.
“Brave Hearted” includes the accounts of “Dame Shirley” (Louise Clappe), who describes the early California Gold Rush; Olive Oatman, who was captured by Indians; and the self-promoting Elizabeth Custer. Hickman writes about handcart pioneers, military wives and camp followers, including the tale of Mrs. Nash, the oft-married laundress who turned out to be a man.
There are vignettes of anonymous travelers, some of whom grew so weary of the hardships of the trail that they went mad. One such woman simply refused to go farther, and her family moved on without her. When she changed her mind and caught up with them, her husband asked if she had seen their son, who had gone back for her. “Yes … and I picked up a stone and nocked[sic] out his brains,” she said. When her husband hurried off to check on the boy, the woman set fire to the wagon. The man came running back, an observer said, “then mustered enough spung to give her a good flogging.”
“Over, Under, Around, and Through,” by Jill S. Tietjen and Elinor Miller Greenberg (Fulcrum Publishing)
Jill S. Tietjen and Elinor Miller Greenberg, themselves members of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame, interviewed and researched 50 honorees to find out how they faced challenges and successfully used them to advance their careers.
Sister Alicia Cuaron, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis, said the lesson she learned from her family — to be proud of her culture and heritage — helped her face racism. Emily Howell Warner, the first female commercial pilot, credits persistence developed early in life for her success against male opposition. Mary Elitch Long was widowed at the age of 34, just a year after her husband opened Elitch Gardens. After a long bout of crying, she dried her tears and reopened the gardens herself, and became the first woman in the world to own a zoo.
Colorado Congresswoman Pat Schroeder recalls a dinner with her Harvard Law School female classmates at the dean’s house. Harvard had only recently allowed women in the law school, and the dean resented them. Among other things, he was angry that funds for the library had been diverted to construct a women’s restroom. After dinner (Schroeder says the food was terrible), the dean asked the women why they were attending Harvard. One of them replied, “Because I didn’t get into Yale.” Pat learned a lesson that evening that helped her deal with bullies in Congress.
“Beneath the Bending Skies,” by Jane Kirkpatrick (Revell)
Jane Kirkpatrick is a superb storyteller in more than two dozen novels she’s written about the lives of real Western women. In “Beneath the Bending Skies,” She recreates the life of Montana’s Mollie Sheehan.
In the 1860s, Mollie lived in Montana with her father, stepmother and their children. Mollie adores her father and strives to gain his approval by being a dutiful daughter. She falls in love with his best friend, Peter Ronan, who’s 10 years her senior. Mollie’s father is furious when he discovers the two are engaged. He tells Mollie that by accepting Peter before her father gave his permission, she has broken the commandment to honor him. He demands that Mollie break the engagement and, as punishment, he moves the family from Montana to California to keep the pair separated forever. “Your father held an insalubrious love for you, at times,” a priest tells Mollie, although Kirkpatrick does not follow that thread.
Love triumphs, of course. After four years, Mollie considers the convent, but before making her choice, she insists on seeing Peter one more time. Love wins out. And does it! She eventually gives birth to nine children.
“Beneath the Bending Skies” is more of a romance than Kirkpatrick’s other novels. Nonetheless, she explores the life of a remarkable woman who’s become a Montana icon.
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