Review of 'Lady's Choice: Ethel Waxham's Journals and Letters, 1905-1910', 'Homesteading: A Montana Family Album'- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
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Review of 'Lady's Choice: Ethel Waxham's Journals and Letters, 1905-1910', 'Homesteading: A Montana Family Album'

Review of 'Lady's Choice: Ethel Waxham's Journals and Letters, 1905-1910', 'Homesteading: A Montana Family Album'

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On June 20, 1910, Ethel Waxham and John Love were married, and the new bride moved back to Wyoming and a life that even her earlier stay hadn't prepared her for. It was, as she described, the "ranchiest kind of ranch life," with no electricity, phone or indoor plumbing. But as her granddaughters noted in the epilogue, "Plato and Proust and the New York Times were just as easily enjoyed by kerosene lantern . . ."

In a foreword to the book, writer John McPhee observes of Waxham that "the admiration and affection I came to feel toward her is probably matched by no one I've encountered in my professional life." After reading Lady's Choice, one can understand why.

Percy Wollaston moved from the Dakotas to the plains of eastern Montana in 1910, the year that Ethel Waxham married. Then 6 years old, Wollaston remained on the family homestead until 1924 when he took the train west, and away.

Wollaston married and settled in Thompson Falls--the wet side of Montana--and, seemingly, forgot the heartache of his parents' struggle where "the land itself was inexorable." For years he did not speak of his childhood to his own children.

Then, in 1972, Wollaston's wife died. That year, he began writing about those early homesteading years in a memoir meant for his grandchildren. "My account can be only the recollections of a child or boy, hazy and distorted by time. . . ." he writes. But he was wrong. His memories flow as naturally as his writing, and the reader is transported back to the day when a 6-year-old stepped from the train into a new life. "The day was chilly, a drizzling rain was falling and a general gloom seemed to have settled over the land."

Not all Wollaston's memories are so grim. "The clearest recollections center around that old lean-to kitchen," he writes of the house his father built on the 320-acre claim. "The crackle of juniper kindling, the rasp of coffee being ground in the mill, the clink of stove lids . . . and the sizzle of frying bacon."

As memories surface, Wollaston brings the past to life, writing about everything from coyote hunting to making butter to the place of honor held by the family's cherished sideboard. "If you found a rare enough treasure," he relates with innocent humor, "you might be allowed to keep it in the sideboard, like donating some artifact to the Smithsonian."

But "the summers seemed to get drier and the winters colder as time went on," and "little by little the town just withered away like some plant that dies and loses its leaves so slowly that the owner continues to hope for survival." Wollaston's parents were among those who abandoned the hostile land, traveling west to join their son.

In a beautifully written foreword to the book, Jonathan Raban relates that when Percy Wollaston handed his son the manuscript, he noted that it was "nothing much, probably not worth the trouble of reading." Nothing could be further from the truth.

Emily d'Aulaire writes reviews from her home in Connecticut.

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