Mary Mann Hamilton’s Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman was originally writen in the 1930s, recounting her experiences pioneering. The chronicle begins in the 1880s in Missouri, moving into Arkansas, with her being crowded into a marriage, as a wife but not an equal.
The narrative is much like the Little House books as told by a spunkier Laura. This is territory filled with timber and wild turkeys, shotguns and Indian mounds, whiskey and wolves: She survives many challenges, from babies born-too-soon and dangerous mountain roads to pneumonia and strychnine, from bears and convicts to hailstorms and floods. She says: “There are times in every woman’s life when it is a greater relief to swear than to pray. Well, I did both then.”
But for all the work that Mary Mann Hamilton describes doing, there are workers alongside bearing an even heavier portion of the burden. Whether indentured or enslaved, it’s difficult to discern, but she makes no bones about the hierarchy and her commitment to preserving it (although when she presses boundaries which she personally finds restrictive, that’s necessary).
“At Webb they have a killing or a lynching on dull days between paydays and fights or some kind of amusement like that every Saturday night.” It’s not Mary Mann Hamilton who describes the settlement in these terms, calling a murder an amusement, but she does speak casually of lashings and bullpens and the need to preserve traditional, proper places in society. And she does not object to the lynchings (although she does object to someone bringing a souvenir from one of them under her roof).
Perhaps it is unfortunate that Mary Mann Hamilton’s memoir was not published when it was written, but at this juncture there have been countless pioneer memoirs, by women and men. I am longing for a different kind of story.
So, what would I suggest, in lieu of Mary Mann Hamilton’s Trials of the Earth? These stories do touch on the idea of property, the owners and the owned and the land (all someone else’s homeland, of course, which would bring another set of books to mind):
Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979)
A twentieth-century woman is drawn back in time, to the early nineteenth century in Maryland, by one of her ancestors (a bookshelf is involved). As a modern woman, she is ill-equipped to negotiate the racialized society she suddenly inhabits, which illuminates all kinds of issues related to justice and identity, subjugation and violence.
Fred D’Aguiar’s The Longest Memory (1994)
After a plantation slave escapes, a series of events is relayed from a variety of perspectives, revealing unexpectedly complicated relationships throughout. Told by a poet, the short novel is powerful and begs rereading.
Valerie Martin’s Property (2003)
Set in 1828 on a Louisiana Sugar Plantation, Valerie Martin’s slim novel takes on a monstrous subject. As the unhappy wife of a plantation owner, Manon has plenty of privilege, yet she envies the attentions paid by her husband to her maid, Sarah.
Laird Hunt’s Neverhome (2014)
A woman disguises herself as a man to fight in the American Civil War in her husband’s place. As time passes, she embodies the role of a hero but also the role of a traitor. While far from home, she ruminates on the idea of home in a way she could not while she was free to inhabit it, and what seemed to be a war-story becomes more of a quest-story.
Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987)
Sethe is an escaped slave, haunted by the experiences she has endured, most dramatically the death of her baby, Beloved. Just the memory of reading the first half of this book still gives me nightmares.
Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (2007)
Following Aminata from Africa and then back across the ocean once more, as she is bought and sold. Her voice is compelling and her chronicle drags readers through uncomfortable territory like a page-turner.
Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative (c. 1853-1861)
Published by an unidentified woman after she escaped slavery on a Southern plantation, this narrative is thinly veiled autobiography of the author’s experiences in slavery.
Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone (2001)
On its own, perhaps this wouldn’t be as entertaining or powerful, but as a parody of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, it’s fiercely intelligent and seeringly observant. (I used to count GWtW as a favourite, both book and film, but I’ve rewatched and reread: no more.)
Andrea Levy’s The Long Song (2010)
This novel is told from July’s perspective as she looks back upon her long life, which began in slavery and ended with her working in the same house but as a free woman. It’s her voice, as much as her story, which still resonates with me today.
When I was a girl, I absolutely loved frontier stories. If anyone had asked me then, if I wouldn’t rather read another kind of story set on the same land? I wouldn’t’ve known what to say. What other story could there be?
But now that I know there are other stories, they are the ones I want to read. Care to add more of them to my TBR?