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Wednesday
Jun222011

Women of the West: Freedom, Adventure And An Awful Lot of Dirt 

Here's a little something I wrote for Fairfield CA's Daily Republic.  The assignment was to write about inspirational books for women. I'm not sure what was expected- self-help in the Dr. Phil genre perhaps, but I chose to write about four books that told the stories of women of the west. What does that have to do with wine? Not much except that for these women, the soil, the sun and the seasons were as primal as they are for anyone who loves wine.

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It was the way she evoked the nature of the prairie that first drew me to Willa Cather’s “My Antonia, a story of Nebraska pioneers, and so much more. You smell the grass as it ripples across the prairie, and hear the wind hum through the lonely landscape.  Antonia’s childhood friend Jim, who narrates the story, goes on to college and career; Antonia must stay on the prairie to support her family. When he finds her again, it is the prairie that inhabits her, making her a character to admire and savor. “She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last.”
        
"Women of the West" by Cathy Luchetti in collaboration with Carol Olwell is a book of photographs accompanied by stories of women, told in their own words, through journals, letters, and diaries. The book’s photographs, are truly worth a thousand words, depicting lives of freedom, adventure and an awful lot of dirt. These are the real life counterparts to the fictional Antonia. There’s a teacher in Texas, her school a shelter made of trunks and twigs, a sour-faced woman with her house of sod, and an Alaskan prospector jauntily posed with everything she needs: her man, her dog and her pipe. The book is dedicated to “those women of the West whose stories will never be told.” I have had this book over twenty years, and I never tire of scouring the photographs for clues to their stories.
        It was in “Women of the West” I first encountered Elinore Pruitt Stewart, a woman who came to a Wyoming to be a housekeeper on a sheep ranch and married the rancher six weeks later. That did not deter her from realizing her dream of homesteading a claim in her own name. You can read her full story in Letters of a Woman Homesteader which is free, not only in the library but online, as part of Project Guttenberg’s free online book collection.  “Heartland” is the movie of her story, featuring Rip Torn as the gruff rancher. Apparently living in a cabin on a Wyoming sheep ranch was not sufficiently “ roughing it” for Elinore, because when her husband goes off on a roundup, she gets restless an takes her daughter on camping trip.
“I wish you could once sleep on the kind of bed we enjoyed that night. It was both soft and firm, with the clean, spicy smell of the pine. The heat from our big fire came in and we were warm as toast. It was so good to stretch out and rest. I kept thinking how superior I was since I dared to take such an outing when so many poor women down in Denver were bent on making their twenty cents per hour in order that they could spare a quarter to go to the show.”
If you prefer a more local heroine, check out Luzena Stanley Wilson’s story, “My Checkered Life,” presented by Vacaville author, Fern Henry.  Wilson’s husband had gold fever and she insisted on going with him to the mines. There were so few women in the camps- in six months Luzena saw only two other women- that men would pay top dollar for a meal  “cooked by a woman.” The Wilsons lost everything in a Sacramento flood, where rats so infested the city that “they bit it at each other, and gnawed the legs of chairs where we sat.” They traveled on to Nevada City but lost everything again in a fire. Once again they picked up and started over, traveling to Vacaville and opening a hotel there.
Whether an autobiography, a book of letters or a classic from a master, these are the stories we are fortunate to read and read again.  They stand for the stories of women we will never know, stories we can only imagine.


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