Sunday, July 7, 2013

20: Letters From Yellowstone - Diane Smith

"Dear Mother, 
Remember that Dr. Bartram I wrote to you about? Well he has arrived. Only he is a she, and now I am at a complete loss as to what I should do. I am so woefully short of staff, I would embrace the worst laggard or miscreant the scientific world has to offer, but, dear Mother, what am I to do with a woman? We already have a cook."

"I am not deserting my career; I am pursuing my life's work."

"The natural world is my religion. I worship the random and the wondrous beauty of it all."

Letters From Yellowstone is a Goodwill find that I picked up because I barely glanced at the back and thought it was a nonfiction book about a female scientist joining a field study in Yellowstone National Park in 1898. It is in fact a novel, although a particularly well researched one (the author studie nineteenth-century western and environmental history as a graduate student and references quite a few Yellowstone books that informed her writing), and was a fantastic read (particularly because I finished it while laid out on a sleeping pad on top of a picnic table in Yellowstone National Park).

It is an epistolary novel told in letters and telegrams from most of the main characters to their various friends, family, colleagues, and bosses. It begins with Miss Alex Bartram writing Professor Merriam asking to join his Yellowstone expedition and signing simply "A. E. Bartram" leaving to the kerfluffle of him assuming that this botanist is a man. (Even now many female scientists choose to submit using initials rather than names that give away their sex - tried to find a cite about an interesting study of how female submitters are accepted less often in scientific journals than males, but I don't have a subscription and the pop-press apparently didn't pick it up - will keep looking). The book is interesting for a few reasons. We encounter a variety of women interested in science in different ways (from our serious botanist to hardcore bird watchers to silly girls who just like to look at cool things in nature) and get to see the sexist ways men react to them (from simply being patronizing to completely ignoring them). We also encounter an American Indian family and see the different racist and progressive ways people react to them as people and as scientists with their traditional natural remedies to maladies. The characters are dynamic and believable, with their belief systems changing in a way that reflects their experiences. Most interesting to me was the way the author incorporates early Yellowstone history - how the army was commissioned to protect the park and the park lovers were terrified of how 'popular' and 'accessible' it was becoming because it would be destroyed (people used to put their clothing into the Old Faithful geyser as a quick way to give them a hot wash!) All of this heightened my entrance into the park through the majestic Roosevelt Arch which says "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People" - I am so proud of our National Park system.

I would say this novel is a little more serious than a beach read, but is still quick and easy, and anyone with an interest in Yellowstone or botany would enjoy it.

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