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

Homesteading: A Montana Family Album
Percy Wollaston
Lyons Press

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.

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.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.