Monday, July 22, 2013

The Diary of Mattie Spenser by Sandra Dallas

Prairie, Prairie, Quite Contrary (Pioneer Women Week) 

The Diary of Mattie Spenser by Sandra Dallas had me smiling from the beginning. Right off, this book promised to be a fun read and it did not disappoint. It’s the story of a young woman who gets an unexpected proposal from a man and is then whisked away to the Colorado Territory just weeks later.  The proposal came as rather a surprise since Luke had never even asked Mattie out for a date.  Mr. Luke Spenser was quite the attractive catch.  But in her own opinion, Mattie considered herself very plain. “Handsome is the best I might be, and then only on special occasions, and in poor light.”  Mattie writes about her new life with a husband who is practically a stranger on the harsh new homestead.  Like all pioneer stories the book is filled with hardships and dangers as well as determination and resourcefulness.  The adversity the pioneers faced head on always amazes me.  Although this book is a novel the general circumstances of their journey and living conditions in the new settlement are historically accurate.  The pioneer people were an unimaginably hardy group, especially the women. This was no camping trip. Camping with all the supplies we have available now would be a dream come true for them back in the 1800s. I wouldn't do very well back then on the frontier. Personally I find modern-day camping a bit too rustic.  I think my husband or neighbors might just have thrown me to a hostile Indian tribe had they heard my constant complaining.  “Where’s my mattress, my hot shower, my coffee maker?  How am I supposed to keep this sod house swept clean?  Why do the Indians keep attacking us?  Stop the madness!” Mattie was a bit more adventuresome and resilient.  She rarely complained and had the best of attitudes in the most trying situations.  This story wasn’t just about surviving in a cruel and unforgiving country; it was also about the complications of love and deception. It had me guessing to the outcome till the very end.  I wish my book club would read this one because I would really like to discuss this story and characters with them. I hope you’ll pick it up and let me know what you thought of it.

(UPDATE:  10/27/13 My book club selected this book and "loved" it.  It got rave reviews with only one member who thought that the sad and disturbing scenes pulled the rating down.)  

As a side note, Sandra Dallas is also the author of The Persian Pickle Club, one of my favorite books.  Personally, I like to sample many authors instead of faithfully sticking to just one until I've worked my way through their entire repertoire. I’m fickle that way. But with Sandra Dallas, I decided to go back for seconds when I saw The Diary of Mattie Spenser at the library bookstore. I sure am glad I did.  I may even be tempted to go for dessert.  Buster Midnight’s Café sounds promising.  I’ll let you know if I ever get around to it in my giant stack of books.

“I received my first word of praise from my husband at our first campfire supper, and many since. Luke pronounced me a fine camp cook, although at the end of the day I think he is so tired and hungry, he could eat a roasted wagon wheel.”

Sandra Dallas, The Diary of Mattie Spenser  (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 15.

“It is said a true woman would rather hear even the faintest praise of her husband than hosannas to herself. The poet who wrote that, I think, was a man.”

Sandra Dallas, The Diary of Mattie Spenser  (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 26-27.

One more “pioneer woman” novel you may want to consider is These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901 by Nancy Turner. This is another book I truly enjoyed.  It tells the story of Sarah’s journey to the new and unfamiliar Arizona Territory. As most women on the frontier, she was spirited and determined. While there are many tragic events in the book, as illness and death along the arduous journey were familiar occurrences, there is also hope and humor in the love story between her and Captain Elliot. A definite thumbs-up.

On my list of pioneer historical novels still to read is Jubilee Trail by Gwen Bristow.  My mom highly recommends this story of a fashionable young New York lady who impulsively marries a wild trader and together they follow the harsh trail her to a new and exciting land called California. 

For pioneer non-fiction, I found the following books very informative and worthwhile:
Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier by Joanna L. Stratton

Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel

More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Montana Women by Gayle C. Shirley (I've only read the Montana Women book, but there are many other states: Nevada, Texas, Wisconsin, Washington, etc.)

Happy reading,


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