Cowboy Jam Session by Jeri Dobrowski: Lilacs mark the spot
A protracted winter on the Northern Great Plains has at last given way to greening pastures, lawns blanketed with a profusion of dandelions, and farmers putting in long hours seeding their fields.
As surely as grass grows and farmers sow, lilacs awaken with an array of fragrant blossom clusters. Varying in shades of purple, with an occasional bush sporting white blossoms, they are favored as much for their hardiness as for their looks. Generations of gardeners planted them near the front door of a house or in mass as a hedge. Knowing what to look for, keen observers can use old-growth thickets to pinpoint the locations of abandoned homesteads.
Stories are oft-told of bone-tired women who packed dishwater to a parched lilac, Harison’s Yellow rose or cottonwood, supplementing what meager precipitation Mother Nature provided. Although all other traces may have disappeared, lilacs remain, rising up from the prairie as if to announce, “Here was a home.” The tenacious lilacs serve as living memorials to pioneering women of the West.
Susan Cummins Miller preserves the woman’s frontier experience in A Sweet, Separate Intimacy: Women Writers of the American Frontier, 1800-1922 (Texas Tech University Press, 2007, 447 pages, paperback ISBN 978-0874806380). Selected poetry, essays, short stories, travelogues, diaries, letters, journals and novel excerpts were published during the settlement years of the American frontier.
What lilacs only hint at, the first-person perspectives of 34 published writers, crossing almost every cultural segment of the West, depict in detail. Isolation, mystic attachment for the land, death of loved ones, mourning, and the frustration when drudgery got in the way of writing are recurring themes in what Miller describes as the “stranger in a strange land experience.” But, there’s also joy and humor sprinkled amongst the challenges women endured.
The anthology begins with Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (1800-1841), born to an Irish fur trader and his Ojibwa wife, and concludes with Alice Corbin Henderson (1881-1949), who moved to Santa Fe, N.M., in hopes of curing her tuberculosis. Among Native American, Hispanic, Chinese, and Anglo writers are recognizable names—Willa Cather, Frances Dana Gage, Sharlot Hall—and obscure writers whose work had not been read since being printed. Biographical introductions are set within historical context.
Originally published in 2000 by University of Utah Press as a hardback and reissued in paperback by Texas Tech University Press, it is lauded for its contribution to Americana and Western and women’s literature. A Sweet, Separate Intimacy is available from online booksellers and from the publisher at ttupress.org/.
Born on a Montana homestead in 1887, pioneer and rodeo cowgirl Fannie Sperry Steele is memorialized in The Lady Rode Bucking Horses: The Story of Fannie Sperry Steele, Woman of the West by Dee Marvine (TwoDot, 2005, 289 pages, b/w photos, paperback ISBN 978-0762731336). Facts for the historical novel were gleaned from family archives, augmented with interviews of Steele and those who knew her. Steele was a charter life member of the Rodeo Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
The story begins with Fanny’s mother making her way up the Missouri River from Bismarck, Dakota Territory, to present day Fort Benton, Mont., aboard the steamboat Montana. The 1,300-mile trip took 43 days. Parents and children alike labored on the family homestead, where Fanny excelled at breaking horses. She was torn between helping her parents and the thrill of participating in the emerging sport of rodeo. Gradually, her contributions included prize money won in bucking horse contests and relay races.
Marvine’s engaging storyline takes readers along as Fanny travels to stampedes and Wild West shows, twice claiming the title of Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World. Fanny also ranched and was the first woman in Montana to be granted an outfitter’s license. She always had a soft spot in her heart for a pinto horse.
The Lady Rode Bucking Horses is available new and used from online booksellers.