Reading Marianne Monson’s stories of twelve bold and inspiring women in Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women, I was often reminded of the daily devotionals from a monthly publication called Our Daily Bread. Our church handed them out to everyone each month and we all read them. My sisters still read Our Daily Bread. Contrarian as I am, I always thought them slightly at odds with the Baptist doctrine of soul liberty, because they often told us how we were supposed to interpret Bible verses, rather than simply giving us context and recognizing our competency to get the point on our own.
I mention this because Monson reminded me so much of the authors of those devotionals in her lack of trust in her readers competency to find their own inspiration and understanding of these women’s lives.
Frontier Grit tells the stories of twelve amazing and inspiring women, from Charley Parkhurst who lived her life as a man and achieved fame as one of the greatest stagecoach drivers in the West. She tells the story of Makaopiopio who was one of the Hawaiians who established a colony in Utah and of Zitkala-Sa, the Sioux woman who wrote an opera and spoke on behalf of Native American rights. All of the women were quite amazing and great examples of courage, resolve and yes, of grit.
There were some curious juxtapositions that came about because each woman’s story is a discrete presentation. Her history, how Monson thinks that story should inspire us, and then some suggestions for further reading (something I appreciated very much). The most jarring example was the story of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton who wrote and spoke on behalf of the Californios who were citizens of Mexico before their land was annexed to the United States. Squatters would settle on their land and there would be long land disputes and they often lost their land. The very next story was about Luzena Stanley Wilson who was an frontier entrepreneur. She was also a squatter on Californio land belonging to a man named Vaca. The “hills and the wildflowers entreated them to stay” but I bet Vaca did not. Add to that, the ironic complaint about later squatters trying to take the land they took by squatting and well, that is how the “West was won” but it is doubly ironic being the story immediately following the story of María and the great injustices done to her.
Monson does a good job of telling the women’s stories and has done a lot of research. In particular, the story of Makaopiopio Kaohimaunu is a testament to her research and dedication to unearthing the stories of pioneer women from the past. There is not much trace of her, not even a Wikipedia entry, and Monson drew her story out by talking to her descendants, going to Utah to see the traces of the former colony and lifting her out of the past, so we can learn of this amazing woman. Most of the women in the book will be new to readers, other than Mother Jones whose inclusion surprised me because she is so well-known. I also valued the inclusion of suggested further reading and sources for more information.
My own feelings about this book are mixed. I enjoyed the stories of the women, but every chapter ended with Monson telling us how we should feel about the women’s stories, how they should make us think about the past, about society today and what lessons we should draw. She has no faith in us as readers to find our own inspiration, turning these women’s stories into didactic morality tales for our edification. So every story, in the end, was ruined by this irritating coda. If you stop reading after the colophon in each chapter, the book would be so much better.
Frontier Grit will be released September 6th. I received an electronic advance copy from the publisher through NetGalley.