Alice’s Book Report
January 6, 2013
Alice told me on the phone a couple of days ago that she’s reading a book about mail-order brides in the days of the Old West. The moment I arrived with her groceries yesterday, she wanted to give me a report.
I took my place across from her and she held up the book.
“First, the widower father of four daughters gets sent from Maine to Paris for some kind of work,” Alice told me. “So two of his daughters have to leave Maine and go out to Colorado and marry men they’ve never met.”
“This sort of thing happened,” I said.
Alice seemed doubtful. “I thought that part was far-fetched. Why would he have to go to Paris, of all places?”
“No, I meant the mail-order bride part.”
“Oh, yes.” She waved this off — a small matter for a woman to get onto a train and bump and lurch across the country to spend the rest of her days married to some stranger. She was eager to get back to the plot.
“Well, when they get to this little mining town,” she said, “there are no men waiting for them at the train station. One of the sisters goes looking and she finds her prospective husband right away. He wears a peacock feather in his hat and he’s with what she calls a strumpet.”
She nodded. Yes, a strumpet. I knew this was the part that interested her, but I couldn’t help thinking about how difficult it would have been to find a peacock feather in a mining town in Colorado in the 19th century.
In my opinion, the strumpet would have been more likely to be wearing a peacock feather in her hat, though it would have been just as hard for her to find one as it would have been for him. But she might order one from a catalog, if they had catalogs. Or she might have been resourceful and made her own out of beads or something, whereas he probably wouldn’t have gone that far.
“Strumpet,” Alice repeated, ignoring my line of inquiry. “Do you know what that means?”
“Yes,” I said.
Alice piled on the woes of the poor girl from Maine who finds herself with this unsavory fellow. “And to top things off,” she said. “he drinks.”
“The worst possible man,” I agreed. “And there she is, stuck with him.”
“No!” Alice said. “He dies!”
I was startled. “So young?”
“Did I say he was young? I don’t know how old he was. But she expects to get his house and his horse, even though she didn’t marry him.”
We agreed this was a lot to cash in on from a man you barely knew even if he did strut around town in a hat with a peacock feather, paid for sex, and drank.
But why didn’t the strumpet get the house and the horse? She should get something for putting up with him.
Alice looked at me and shook her head. “You’re thinking too much now about the strumpet.”
It turned out the house was only fourteen feet wide, and our girl from Maine somehow did legally get hold of it. Plus the horse. A miracle!
Meanwhile, Alice continued, the girl’s sister had to call on the local doctor on behalf of someone else, and, according to Alice, “Something is going to happen there. I’ll keep you posted.”
She sighed, worn out by these goings-on a century and a half ago, and turned to her pile of mail. She handed me all her bills to take with me. She often jots down notes on the envelopes, information she picks up throughout her day, and she puts those bills with notes on top so that I’ll be sure to see them.
On the back of her phone bill she had written: “Houdini could not escape from the afterlife.” She tapped the envelope. “He told his wife he would try, but he couldn’t do it. Look it up.”
(Sure enough, his wife tried to contact him through séance after séance, but he didn’t show up.)
On the back of her Comcast bill she’d written: “The first knives were made from bones 10,000 years ago.”
Easy to guess who got these bones nice and clean for the cook.
Her insurance bill envelope had this interesting tidbit: “Once a hailstone as big as a bowling ball fell on Nebraska.”
She yanked the lever on her La-Z-Boy rocker and her feet flew up in front of her. “Those people!” she said, nodding at the fat packet of magazine ads . “They keep sending me checks for huge amounts that say ‘This is not a check.’ “
I kissed her cheek. “Shame on them.”
“I suppose,” she said, and closed her eyes.
I think she was asleep before I got to the door.
If you’re interested in stories about real women homesteaders, sex workers of that era, and mail-order brides, here are some resources.
Madeleine: An Autobiography, the story of a prostitute who lived in Chicago and Butte, Montana, with an introduction by my cousin, historian Marcia Carlisle.
Upstairs Girls: Prostitution in the American West, by historian Michael Rutter.
Letters of a Woman Homesteader, Elinore Pruitt Stewart
(The film “Heartland” was based on this book. I just got the audiobook from the library recently and listened to it for several nights while cooking dinner. I loved it.)
Cowgirls: Women of the American West, by Teresa Jordan
Pioneer Women: The Lives of Women on the Frontier, ed. by Linda Peavy, Ursula Smith
Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier, by Joanna L. Stratton
Essays and Stories by Gertrude Simmons Bonin (Zitkala-Sa) This link takes you to many of this Dakota woman’s essays from the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s, published at the beginning of the 20th century.
Women of the West, ed. by Cathy Luchetti; Carol Olwell
Black Pioneers, An Untold Story, by William Loren Katz
Black Women of the Old West, by William Loren Katz
Above the Clearwater: Living on Stolen Land, by Bette Husted (Memoir)
Riding the White Horse Home, by Teresa Jordan (Memoir)
Prairie Reunion, by Barbara Scot (Memoir)
O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia, the remarkable prairie trilogy by Willa Cather
The Jump Off Creek, by Molly Gloss, or The Hearts of Horses, by Molly Gloss, or really anything by Molly Gloss. Her book, Wild Life, is one of my favorite books of all time. You can find all of her books on this page of her web site.
Can you think of any books to add to the list?
Finally, here’s the real deal—Martha, Alice’s mama. (See In the Beginning, Martha.)