Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Ex Libris--Letters of a Woman Homesteader
Here's the story:
. . .The Edmonsons had only one child, a daughter, who was to have married a man whom her parents objected to solely because he was a sheep-man, while their sympathies were with the cattle-men, although they owned only a small bunch. To gain their consent the young man closed out his interest in sheep, at a loss, filed on a splendid piece of land near them, and built a little home for the girl he loved. Before they could get to town to be married Grandpa was stricken with rheumatism. Grandma was already almost past going on with it, so they postponed the marriage, and as that winter was particularly severe, the young man took charge of the Edmonson stock and kept them from starving. As soon as he was able he went for the license.
It's a letter written in 1910 by a woman named Elinore Pruitt Stewart, a widow with a young child, whose second marriage resulted in her moving from Denver to the Wyoming frontier, where she and her new husband and child homesteaded land. With many others, the letter is in a book that's been in my library of 35 years, Letters of A Woman Homesteader, a book I bought when I wrote my first book.
The story continues:
Mrs. O'Shaughnessy and a neighbor were hunting some cattle that had wandered away and found the poor fellow shot in the back. He was not yet dead and told them it was urgently necessary for them to hurry him to the Edmonsons' and to get some one to perform the marriage ceremony as quickly as possible, for he could not live long. They told him such haste meant quicker death because he would bleed more; but he insisted, so they got a wagon and hurried all they could. But they could not outrun death. When he knew he could not live to reach home, he asked them to witness all he said. Everything he possessed he left to the girl he was to have married, and said he was the father of the little child that was to come. He begged them to befriend the poor girl he had to leave in such a condition, and to take the marriage license as evidence that he had tried to do right. The wagon was stopped so the jolting would not make death any harder, and there in the shadow of the great twin buttes he died.
The story doesn't end there, however--after all, there was that young woman, pregnant, and now very much alone.
They took the body to the little home he had made, and Mrs. O'Shaughnessy went to the Edmonsons' to do what she could there. Poor Cora Jane didn't know how terrible a thing wounded pride is. She told her parents her misdeeds. They couldn't see that they were in any way to blame. They seemed to care nothing for her terrible sorrow nor for her weakened condition. All they could think of was that the child they had almost worshiped had disgraced them; so they told her to go.
I found the story years and years ago, when I bought the book because I thought it would tell me much more about what it was like to homestead--I needed to see more of the very character of that kind of life; but this letter held a story that leaped out from its own time and place.
Mrs. O'Shaughnessy took her to the home that had been prepared for her, where the poor body lay. Some way they got through those dark days, and then began the waiting for the little one to come. Poor Cora Jane said she would die then, and that she wanted to die, but she wanted the baby to know it was loved,--she wanted to leave something that should speak of that love when the child should come to understanding. So Mrs. O'Shaughnessy said they would make all its little clothes were every care, and they should tell the love. Mrs. O'Shaughnessy is the daintiest needleworker I have ever seen; she was taught by the nuns at St. Catherine's in the "ould country." She was all patience with porr, unskilled Cora Jane, and the little outfit that was finally finished was dainty enough for a fairy. Little Cora Belle is so proud of it.
But the story of Cora Jane and Cora Belle doesn't end there. There's more:
At last the time came and Mrs. O'Shaughnessy went after the parents. Long before, they had repented and were only too glad to go. The poor mother lived one day and night after the baby came. She laid the tiny thing in her mother's arms and told them to call her Cora Belle. She told them she gave them a pure little daughter in place of the sinful one they had lost.
Love and death, sin and guilt and forgiveness--finally, even, new life. It's no wonder that this story line grabbed me. It's all there, every shimmering element of the most important moments of human life itself.
First, the plot's outline became a short story, "The Paths of Righteousness," in Sign of a Promise. A quarter-century later, it reemerged in Touches the Sky, a novel set in South Dakota, the boy a white man, the young woman, Lakota.
Letters of a Woman Homesteader is on-line today, where you can read the entire letter yourself. My copy of the book of Ms. Stewart's letters, a 1961 publication of the University of Nebraska Press, is, I suppose, itself an anachronism.
Moving to a smaller place means downsizing in every way. Much of a library created by 40 years of teaching English and writing all kinds of things just simply has to go. Right now, here on my desk the old book sits. Two boxes are on the floor beside me--one full of "I just can'ts," the other filling more slowly with "I-musts."
The clock is ticking, but I don't have to make a decision this morning. Still, I know the facts: I can read the book on line, I haven't been through its pages in 30 years, and it's unlikely I'll ever read it again.
But you can bet it won't burn. I know a student who might like it, someone who will maybe give it as good a home as it has had here.
I owe it that much. I owe it much more.