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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'

Lady's Choice: Ethel Waxham's Journals and Letters, 1905-1910
Compiled & Edited by Barbara Love
and Frances Love Froidevaux
University of New Mexico Press, $16.95

Homesteading: A Montana Family Album
Percy Wollaston
Lyons Press, $20

Five years is a long time for a man to wait for a woman, but Ethel Waxham was no ordinary woman. After graduating from Massachusetts' Wellesley College in 1905 with a degree in classical literature and a Phi Beta Kappa key, the 23-year-old accepted a teaching position at a one-room school in Wyoming--a log cabin where ink froze in inkwells and snow drifted gently in the corners.

Waxham kept a journal during her sojourn in Wyoming, and later when she taught Greek and Latin in Wisconsin. Her two granddaughters have used the journals, along with Waxham's poetry and correspondence from 1905 to 1910--the time it took her suitor, John Galloway Love, to win her hand--to create Lady's Choice, the tale of a remarkable woman and a remarkable courtship.

Within days of her arrival at the ranch where she would stay during her teaching stint--a 24-hour stagecoach ride from the nearest railroad station--Waxham began her journal, capturing the people around her with uncanny insight and humor. There's Ida Franklin who was "frivolous even in her silence," and Old Pelon who, asked if he regretted his wife's demise, replied simply, "No, she a dev'."

Waxham developed a fondness for the ragtag students, who surely must have seemed light-years removed from the intellectual companions of her Wellesley days. When she asked one gangling fellow how many eights are in ninety-six, he thought for a while. "Finally," she writes, "he says with such a winsome smile that I wish with all my heart it were true--'Two.'" And when she quizzed another about where digestion takes place: "Emmons thinks until a smile of enlightenment dances over his face. 'In the Erie Canal,' he answers."

Waxham's descriptions of her surroundings are as unadorned and powerful as the landscape itself. "The bluffs loomed large and dark against the moonlit sky; the shadows grew like the silence, crisp and clear cut," she writes in one journal entry.

Waxham met John Love, a 35-year-old sheep rancher, soon after her arrival. Given the space she allotted him in her journal, Mr. Love, as she called him, clearly made an impression--if not altogether favorable. "His face was kindly, with shrewd blue twinkling eyes. . . . But his voice was most peculiar and characteristic. Close analysis fails to find the charm of it. . . ."

John Love found no fault with the new schoolteacher. From the day he met her, he worked doggedly to win her, continuing the courtship by mail after Waxham left the ranch. Regarding his letters, Waxham wrote, "'No' was 'no' to other men, but not to him. . . . I was nearly as stubborn in refusing as he was in insisting."

Nearly, but not quite. It's not clear what persuaded Ethel Waxham to accept John Love's proposal, but in the end Love--and love--won out. Perhaps it was her disillusionment with the teaching profession that began at the prison-like convent school in Wisconsin and deepened with the tedium of a high school French class in Pueblo, Colorado. Surely the pure, deep devotion that shines through Love's letters must have played a part.

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