REVIEWED: Frontier Grit

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Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women by Marianne Monson. (Wild West History, 2016).

The author of eight books for adults and children, Marianne Monson’s latest is a winning, respectful and fond (but never quite fawning) nonfiction account of the lives of a dozen wildly differing women (a couple still somewhat famous, others once so and still others very little known) who experienced and to one degree or another overcame multiple challenges in the 19th century locale commonly called America’s Wild West.

Her introductory essay muses about what constitutes a ‘frontier’ then notes (honestly but without undue bitterness) the old-fashioned tendency to focus exclusively on the exploits of prominent men in history. She recounts coming across an old book entitled Pioneers of California and her dismay that every figure detailed within was both male and white. At the time, she was already researching this book and the old tome surely deepened her commitment to present a wider ranging and more inclusive picture in her work.

What follows in the next 198 pages is by no means an exhaustive study of the women she profiles. But each gets her own biographical chapter, each very decently researched and reported in a somewhat informal, yet honest and discerning manner. Her tone is anything but stiff, but each chapter is complete with footnotes and lists book-length sources available for anyone inspired to learn about one or more of her subjects in more depth. And there’s a brief concluding essay that seeks to unite the extremely varied individual stories around an overall theme of people (in this case all female) finding ways to survive, be themselves and rise above the restrictive expectations and unfair realities of that time, region and dominant society.

As I’ve indicated above, these dozen are indeed a highly varied lot!

Nellie Cashman’s adventures as a Gold Rush “Boomer” carried her to one after another boom towns in the US, the Canadian Yukon and even included a brief (if unsuccessful) sojourn to Mexico. Former slave Clara Brown became known as unofficial ‘Aunt’ to every down-on-his-luck miner in Colorado, earning a respect and local celebrity uncommon to anyone of her era, let alone a black woman, while keeping up a lifelong quest to find the daughter stolen from her in the bad old days of the pre-Civil War south.

The famous and indomitable labor rights agitator Mother Jones is also found here. As is Charley Parkhurst, who hid her gender for decades to become the most famed stagecoach driver in California. And Zitkala-Sa, the Sioux Rights activist and writer who used what aspects she found valuable in the education the white-run “Indian Schools” drilled into her to spread word of and defend her embattled Native culture.

Elsewhere, we learn of a woman who followed the Oregon Trail to a new home then worked for decades for women’s suffrage; the first Mexican-American female novelist; a frontier doctor who became the first female state senator while fighting for acceptance of her unconventional marital arrangements; the woman who opposed the exploitation of Chinese girls in San Francisco’s Chinatown; a bold frontier entrepreneur who more often than not worked out a canvas tent; and another woman–a confirmed Easterner–who adapted to the crude western mining town her husband brought her to and made a career for herself as an author and illustrator.

But perhaps the most unexpected story of all, at least for me, is that of Makaopiopio–an illiterate native of Hawaii, who converted with her family to the Mormon religion and eventually joined a small colony of her people to practice their new faith in the strange and distant land of Utah. A fascinating story in itself, and rendered doubly so by the author’s account of how it came to her attention when teaching in a Hawaiian college town.

Overall, Frontier Grit is a worthy and highly readable introduction to the varied and interesting true-life experiences of women in the American West.

 

 

 

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