Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women | Author: Marianne Monson | Rating: 7/11 |
The 19th century westward expansion of the United States is a story every American knows well. So well, in fact, that it has taken on near-mythical proportions in the collective mind and heart of the nation. This chapter in American history is constantly exploited in politics, education, and advertising, and is often looked on with nostalgic idealization. That westward expansion was difficult and dangerous is part of its appeal. However, historians have become increasingly aware in recent years that the story Americans all know and love is only part of the truth. Efforts have been made to rescue and reclaim the voices of the past which traditionally have been lost in the telling of this narrative. One such voice is that of the women who helped push the boundaries of the country ‘from sea to shining sea’. In her new book, Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women, Marianne Monson highlights the lives and achievements of twelve such women, introducing them to a contemporary audience and defending the relevancy of their successes in today’s complicated world.
Each short chapter in Monson’s book focuses on an individual pioneer woman, for a total of twelve micro-biographies in all. Some of the women are of the traditional ‘pioneer’ sort: women such as Nellie Cashman, who flourished in her varied roles as a nurse, a business woman, and a gold prospector; and Luzena Stanely Wilson, a fiercely determined woman who turned her cooking skills into a successful string of business ventures during the California gold rush. But with an eye to diversity, Monson’s colorful cast includes a host of remarkable women whom readers might not be expecting, including Mother Jones (a schoolteacher who used her love of politics and oration to become a political activist and an organizer for labor reform), Donaldina Cameron (a courageous woman who rescued countless young Chinese girls from slavery and prostitution in San Francisco’s Chinatown), Charley Parkhurst (a woman who spent her entire adult life masquerading as a man and who became the most celebrated stagecoach driver in the West) and Makaopiopio (a Hawaiian native who converted to Christianity and eventually became one of the first immigrants to settle the colony of Iosepa).
Monson’s definition of ‘The Frontier’ encompasses more than just traditional notions of log-cabin settlers inhabiting shanty towns, and this expanded view paints a more accurate and realistic picture of 19th century America. The book does more than rescue the unique voices and important accomplishments of these women. It also recovers aspects of the American narrative which have traditionally been omitted from popular history. Monson’s work reminds readers of the diversity of the United States, both now and in the past, and of the ways in which all of its peoples worked together to create the nation that exists today.
There is no question that work of this nature is important, especially given America’s current political climate. Now more than ever, the voices of women – historical women in particular, and historical immigrant women even more so – need to be heard. On a daily basis politicians are using their personal biases to rewrite the country’s history, which makes efforts to preserve the past more important than perhaps they ever have been before. That being said, however, this short, episodic collection is a difficult way in which to do this. Monson, herself, laments towards the end of the book that she must condense so much history into so few pages. That tension is felt throughout the course of the work and is never resolved satisfactorily. By necessity, the tone of the writing shifts back and forth between a recitation of facts and a more personalized narration of a particular episode, but the transitions between the two are never smooth. One might argue that many of these women now exist somewhere between fact and folktale anyway, and that Monson’s writing style is a reflection of this; but if so, it is not executed convincingly and the end of each chapter brings with it a feeling of unfulfillment. Readers cannot help but wonder at how much of the story has been omitted and for a casual reader of popular history, an ‘additional reading’ list isn’t really enough to resolve this problem.
While casual readers find themselves disappointed by a lack of in-depth content, scholarly readers will be left wondering where the discussion is. Each chapter concludes with Monson’s brief interpretation of her subject’s life in a broader historical context, but these thoughts feel rushed and incomplete. Vapid optimism seems to be favored over real analysis, which I believe does no credit to Monson as the detailed and conscientious historian she seems to be. If Monson wishes to leave a mark in her field, much more will be needed from her next work, regardless of its intended audience.
That being said, however, Monson’s book remains an important and relevant work. Painstakingly researched and crafted with obvious passion, it is a worthy stepping stone into a subject that demands further scrutiny. Devoted historians and the casually curious alike can learn something from it, and hopefully, the book will incite further interest and conversation about its subjects, as seems to be Monson’s intent.