Monday, June 30, 2008

Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart

Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart
Bison Books (University of Nebraska Press)
282 pages
Copyright 1961; Originally published 1914

About noon the first day out we came near a sheep-wagon, and stalking along ahead of us was a lanky fellow, a herder, going home for dinner. Suddenly it seemed to me I should starve if I had to wait until we got where we had planned to stop for dinner, so I called out to the man, "Little Bo-Peep, have you anything to eat? If you have, we'd like to find it." And he answered, "As soon as I am able, it shall be on the table, if you'll but trouble to get behind it." [p.8]

After two more such days I "arrived." When I went up to the office where I was to
file, the door was open and the most taciturn old man sat before a desk. I hesitated at the door, but he never let on. I coughed, yet no sign but a deeper scowl. I stepped in and modestly kicked over a chair. He whirled around like I had shot him. "Well?" he interrogated. I said, "I am powerful glad of it. I was afraid you were sick, you looked in such pain." He looked at me a minute, then grinned and said he thought I was a book-agent. Fancy me, a fat, comfortable widow, trying to sell books! [p. 12]

In the center of my room is a square table made of pine and stained brown. Over it is a table-cover that you gave me. Against the wall near my bed is my "dresser". It is a box with shelves and is covered with the same material as my screen. Above it I have a mirror, but it makes ugly faces at me every time I look into it. [p. 141]
It has always been a theory of mine that when we become sorry for ourselves we make our misfortunes harder to bear, because we lose courage and can't think without bias; so I cast about me for something to be glad about . . . [p. 238]

What led you to pick up this book?
I snatched up all the history books off my mother's shelves while I was working on cleaning out her house (it's okay; my sister is not a reader and was happy to see them go). I love reading about pioneers in the American West because they had such spirit and were willing to work incredibly hard to create a new life. I picked this one up because it looked fun and I was stuck in bed with a minor back injury over the weekend.

Describe the book without giving anything away. Letters of a Woman Homesteader is a series of letters written by a young widow and mother who left her job in Denver to work as a housekeeper for a rancher in Wyoming, her goal being to learn from him and eventually file for and work her own land. Elinore Stewart wrote the letters to her former employer in Denver, Juliet Coney, and they are incredibly lively, full of stories about her adventures and about the other homesteaders around her.

What did you like most about the book? I loved everything about it, but particularly the strong character of the woman who wrote the letters. Elinore was sharp-witted, extremely upbeat, hard-working, humble and adventurous. She married the rancher she set out to work for within 6 weeks, and then their affection for each other slowly grew, but at the same time she "maintained her independence by filing for land adjacent to that of her husband and proving it up herself" (from the cover blurb). There were many things to admire about the resourceful and independent woman who told her story in this series of letters.

Share a favorite scene from the book: I've quoted from several favorites, but I also loved her description of a camping trip she and her young daughter took into the mountains. The scenery was described vividly and with such beauty that it was easy to visualize. And, she was so incredibly enthusiastic about the simple food and coffee of camp life that I actually began to crave roasted potatoes. My husband was soaking some ribs, so I asked him to start up a fire and slow roast some potatoes in the ashes, as Elinore did overnight, and cook some baked beans. He did as I asked and ohmygosh. I'd forgotten food could be that good. I highly recommend cooking camp food while you read this book.

Both thumbs up - Fantastic reading. Elinore Stewart was a woman of great character and a phenomenal storyteller. In a world where people "create" their own parking spaces in order to avoid having to walk 50 yards farther across a parking lot, it's refreshing to read about a hardworking woman who not only could do anything and everything she set her hand to but loved every minute of it. Definitely one of the best books I've read, this year.

A RICE and books weekend: I mentioned being laid up, this weekend, but I have to tell you how that came about. I was reaching for a load of laundry and threw my back out. This was a new experience for me. I was bent over, totally stuck, and had to holler for my husband to help me stand up and walk to the bedroom, where (recalling the advice of a paramedic friend to use Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation on fresh injuries) I spent two days with a pile of books, an ice-pack and a bottle of muscle relaxants. I slept a great deal, but I also managed to read 3 books, which has simply served to throw me even farther behind on reviews. I am not complaining. I'm going backwards, here, starting with the book most recently completed.

Ever met anyone with a Laundry Injury, before? I think it's kind of funny, even though it hurt like the dickens.

Other things I read:

On Friday: Sermons and Soda Water by John O'Hara
Saturday: Entropy by Anthony Lawrence Gordon
Unfinished but working on: In the Clearing by Robert Frost and At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon

I'll finish the Frost, but I've discovered that Robert Frost is just a wee bit too rhyme and rhythm, for my taste. As I was reading a bit of his poetry on Saturday, I thought up a rhyme of my own:

If one could drown in books, then I
Would be the very first to die.

I hope that's original. Next up will be a review of Entropy. Thanks to my sore back, I can't lift and move a pile of books to photograph them, but I hope to be able to do so within a few days; then, you can see some of the other books I dragged home.

Many thanks to Maggie for the delicious pecans!! I was one of the winners in her weekly drawing for the Southern Reading Challenge and I have to tell you . . . it's worth taking on the challenge, just for the chance to win some of those pecans. They are soooo good. Thank you, Maggie!!!

I'll close with a piece of my childhood artwork that seems to fit the book review. While home, I photographed some artwork from elementary school and then tossed it all in the trash. Most everything was rendered on construction paper and was literally falling to pieces. I should mention that teachers at the elementary school of my youth worked closely together, so that when we studied pioneers we drew pioneers and when we studied Greek and Norse gods, we made masks in art and did a play in another class. I loved my elementary education. Here's my drawing of pioneer life:

Happy Monday!

Bookfool on ice


  1. Oh Nancy, I hope you are feeling much better. See, that's why laundry should be avoided at all costs! ha,ha. Can't wait to hear about all the books you've been reading. I like the sound of this one.

  2. Hi Iliana!

    I'm much better, already, thanks! I think I did the right thing just lying down with an icepack and reading all weekend. I'm sore, but I can move. Letters of a Woman Homesteader was wonderful. I highly recommend it!

  3. I'm sorry to hear about your injury--I hope you are back on your feet this week! I too have always enjoyed reading about the pioneer days. I think it goes back to my mom reading Little House on the Prairie and my dad watching westerns. This sounds like an excellent book!

  4. Now, listen, you! What are you trying to do, keep me company? Don't do that!

    Mine is actually not my back - it's my pelvis. My hips were nowhere near to being in line with each other. I hope you get better twice as fast as I did!

    The book sounds lovely but I don't think I've ever had potatoes cooked that way. They sound yummmy, though.

    Do you have any idea how old you were when you rendered that masterpiece?

    It's good to have you back!


  5. Letters Of A Woman Homesteader sounds positively wonderful. Must. Have.

    I like your pioneer drawing.

  6. This one sounds really interesting! And I'm glad you took some time to relxas this weekend to help heal faster. :D

  7. Laura,

    Thanks! I'm back on my feet, just a little stiff and sore. As long as I get in some stretching and don't lift anything heavy, I think the old back will be okay in a week or so. I'm improving rapidly.

    I hadn't thought of that, but I'll bet Little House on the Prairie influenced a lot of us. My Antonia is another favorite of mine (besides the Little House books). Letters of a Woman Homesteader is great -- definitely worth owning. Elinore Stewart was a remarkable woman and so funny! Let me know if you read it! I'd love to hear someone else's thoughts. :)


    I know, I thought, "Good grief, I can't believe I did this right after CJ hurt herself!" I didn't go to the doctor, but I'm just assuming I made the mistake of putting my weight in the wrong place, although the pain shot up from my hip to my lower back and that can mean sciatica. I hope not. Thanks. I'm improving pretty rapidly. How are you doing?

    I don't think we've ever roasted potatoes that way, but we've roasted garlic, veggies and chicken in ashes. There's something about slow-cooking that makes things taste better.

    Ummm, 4th or 5th grade, if I remember right. One thing I neglected to do was photograph the back of each little "work of art" so I would have a record of how old I was, but at least I managed to preserve them digitally. I just assumed the grade-school art had been thrown out years ago.

    Thanks! I had fun reading, but I was dying to play online (partly to see how the read-a-thon was going). It's great to be back (again)! :)


    It is definitely wonderful. You should put it right on your wish list this minute, if you haven't already.

    And, thank you. I was excited to find some of my childhood artwork. I just assumed my mother had thrown it all out or it had all been ruined because she used to tape up my artwork on the kitchen cabinets -- figured they were probably all torn and tossed out, after she took them down, you know? :)

  8. Eva,

    It's such a good book that I'm hoping a bunch of bloggers will rush out to buy the book and freak out the people at University of Nebraska Press. LOL

    Thanks. I'm fortunate that my husband was really patient with me. He helped me get up and down if I needed help, brought me food (he even asked me what I wanted!!!!) and ice packs, etc. What a sweetie. I think the rest really helped. And, of course, reading time is therapeutic. LOL

  9. I led a Humanities grant with five different books in a discussion format on letters, (I think?) and this was one of the books. Seems like it was 97 or 98, and the participants loved this book in particular. Me, too! So much so I kept it! I only keep books I love or I'm holding to read.

    Glad you liked the pecans and I'm also glad you feel better! :)

  10. Maggie,

    It's definitely a keeper. I'd love to be as amazing as Elinore. I think she's my new hero.

    The pecans are sinful. I'm surprised they're not all gone. We are loving them!

    Thanks. I still have some recovering to do, but I've improved. I'm well enough to clean up the cat piddle (my cat is leaking -- think she might have an infection) but not quite up to carrying her to the vet. Yeesh.

  11. This sounds wonderful. I grew up on a steady diet of Laura Ingalls Wilder so I've always been a fan of the pioneer story, but as an adult have a whole new appreciation of what they went through, and how hard life was.

    So sorry to hear about your back. Mine went out at the post office picking up a box. I layed on the floor and watched trashy tv for 2 days straight. It was bad.

  12. Tara,

    Exactly. As adults, knowing what it takes just to get a meal on the table, we can appreciate the effort it took to plow, plant, tend, harvest and *then* cook!

    Thank you. That must have been awful throwing your back out in public. I did exactly the same, sans trashy TV -- I just read and slept, slept and read. I felt like a bum. LOL

  13. I have to be honest, I'm behind behind behind in my reading and am about to go out of town for a week, so I almost skipped this review. But then I saw the beautiful artwork from your elementary days. :) I'm so glad you shared. And then I read the review and it sounds fascinating--and who doesn't love strong female characters?! I'll have to look into this one.

  14. Trish,

    I'm sorry you're behind. I know that feeling all too well. Hope you have a fabulous trip. Thanks for the compliment on my elementary art. :)

    Obviously, I'm a big fan of this particular book -- definitely look for it. I don't see how anyone could possibly dislike Elinore Stewart. She's amazing.

  15. A very belated good wish for a quick recovery. I hope that by now your back has healed enough so you can get about without grimacing. Forget the laundry, though. That's what husbands are for! ;)

    Love the prairie artwork. Very clever of you to photograph the art for archival purposes. Might even be a good idea for parents of young children! Why clutter up the entire house with years of stuff when you can digitally archive and upload it to an Ofoto album? I think I'll mention this to my SIL tomorrow.

    Great review for Letters of a Woman Homesteader! I'll definitely have to move the book to a soon-to-read stack. I know I have it around here somewhere...

    Les on Bourbon ;)

  16. Me again. Just want to add another comment so I can remember to click on that darned "Email follow-up comments" box, so I can read what you write in response to my previous comment. Guess I should lay off the bourbon!

  17. Les,

    Lay off the bourbon, babe. LOL

    I'm better but I have good days and bad days, which I think can at least partly be attributed to getting old and creaky.
    That's really a great idea to photograph children's artwork and toss it. I did so because my old art was falling to pieces, but it also occurred to me that I didn't have any desire to keep a pile of my childhood drawings, even if they'd been completely intact.

    I just noticed an entire paragraph (the answer to the question, "What did you think of the characters?") is missing from this post! I wonder if I inadvertently deleted it when I was trying to fix a spacing problem. This is a new blogger quirk -- posting and then having to go back and backspace between paragraphs because the spacing is all messed up. It's a total waste of time. I'm not sure if I'm going to stick out blogger much longer.

  18. Sorry to hear Blogger is giving you fits. Makes me kind of glad that I stuck with the classic version!


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