For months, Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart has been hovering near the bottom of the list of the top 100 free Kindle ebooks. It’s a collection of letters from a Wyoming homesteader, dated from when she first arrived on her claim in 1909, through 1913. They’re all addressed to her friend and former employer in Denver, who seems to have seen more in the letters than their author did. Stewart emerges as a big hearted woman, who would most likely be shocked that her letters are achieving such fame a century after she wrote them.
She had no formal training as a writer, but her words–as well as her frequent book references–show that she must have been a voracious reader. She brings the old West to life, but not in the way I would have expected. The people here are wonderful characters, full of life and generous almost to a fault. She describes food so well that all opinions I had previously of bland, canned diets have been vanquished. It seems there was often a cause for a feast. Stewart bountifully describes meals piled high by the side of makeshift campfires, putting today’s fast food standards to shame.
But it’s in her descriptions of the Wyoming landscape where Stewart truly excels. It’s obvious that she fell in love with this land, reveled in all that nature had to offer. The letters are riddled with evocative descriptions:
For a distance our way lay up Henry’s Fork valley; prosperous little ranches dotted the view, ripening grain rustled pleasantly in the warn morning sunshine, and closely cut alfalfa fields made bright spots of emerald against the dun landscape. The quaking aspens were just beginning to turn yellow; everywhere purple asters were a blaze of glory except where the rabbit-bush grew in clumps, waving its feathery plumes of gold. Over it all the sky was so deeply blue, with little, airy, white clouds drifting lazily along. Every breeze brought scents of cedar, pine, and sage. At this point the road wound along the base of the cedar hills; some magpies were holding a noisy caucus among the trees, and high overhead a great black eagle soared.
The letters are often separated by months, and usually detail trips Stewart took to neighboring homesteads. A fiercely independent woman, she made a habit of bundling her young children into a wagon and heading out into the countryside, where she often would need to take an unexpected detour and spend the night camping out. Lots of elaborate tales of weddings, pot luck dinners, and holiday get-togethers. Her tone is upbeat, if not inspirational, and there is only the slightest hint of all the work that must have happened between such festivities, little more than side references to how much labor was involved with the day-to-day life of a homesteader.
Stewart comes across as downright contemporary. One can only imagine what she would make of the connectivity that modern communications would have allowed the homesteader. Her letters are a real treasure, a wonderful portrayal of life in the not-so-old West.