Sunday, April 30, 2017

April Book Review: Trials of the Earth

Trials of the Earth is the memoir of Mary Mann Hamilton, a pioneer in Mississippi (and Missouri and Arkansas) in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She wrote it as an elderly woman in the 1930s and a friend helped edit it and submitted it to a writing contest, but it was only widely published in 2016, and it's a fascinating historical document about a time and place that I didn't know much about. (I feel like, as far as European settlers in North America go, we hear a lot about early colonists and then about the Oregon Trail, but I'd honestly never given a lot of thought to who settled Mississippi or when.) In some ways, the book reads like an adult Little House - Hamilton and her family move around a lot and are often among the first white settlers in an area, and they rarely stay anywhere for long, with the family following the patriarch, though in Hamilton's case the constant moving is more due to economic necessity than wanderlust.

And, as in Little House, there are all sorts of terrible things happening all the time. Hamilton survives constant natural disasters, repeated financial ruin, the deaths of her parents and some of her siblings and four of her children and eventually her husband. Her perseverance in the face of all this is truly astonishing and admirable; there are all these times where she's basically left alone in the wilderness for months with a couple of toddlers, or at best dozens of men relying on her to cook for them all. And she just does it. Every time it seems like her family might be stable for a while, something goes wrong; I spent so much of the book wanting her to just catch a break, and she pretty much never does.

It's frustratingly obvious to the modern reader that Hamilton was the only reason her family made it through, that as much as she deferred to and obeyed her husband he was almost completely ill-equipped for any kind of productive ongoing work situation. (His past is a big mystery, never solved, and that's a little frustrating for the reader but unavoidable given that he never told his wife his real name. [!!!] I'd have assumed his hints at growing up in the British aristocracy were just fake if it weren't for how useless he is; he was obviously not brought up to have to do any hands-on work.) Hamilton married him at 18 when her mother and eldest brother died, because he agreed to provide for her younger siblings as well, and she spent most of her life trying to decide if she actually loved her husband as she bore him nine children and followed him from failure to failure and kept the family afloat through her own constant work and ingenuity.

Hamilton was not a professional writer, and that's clear from the book, but I'm glad they left it in her authentic voice, and the matter-of-fact, unromantic way that she describes what she and her family endured makes the story all the more powerful. On the other hand, I did sometimes wish for more annotations making clear exactly where and when events were taking place, and sometimes the historical context - what else was going on in the region and the country that affected the conditions in which the Hamilton family found themselves.

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