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Saturday, July 25, 2009

American Grit: A Woman's Letters from the Ohio Frontier edited by Emily Foster~★★★★★

Title: American Grit: A Woman's Letters from the Ohio Frontier
Author: Edited by Emily Foster
Release Date: February 23rd, 2003
Publisher: University of Kentucky Press
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Jacket: "'My beloved friends,' writes Anna Briggs Bentley, 'How often do I wish that you could peep in at us and hear the sound of cheerful voices issuing from our lowly cabin? I have not yet sufficient leisure to tell you how we got here, but it was without accident...'
Thus begin the letters of a woman on the Ohio frontier, far removed from the comforts and privilege of her family's Maryland estate. In 1826, Anna and Joseph Bentley and their children made the perilous journey westward---like many other Americans---in search of new opportunities for themselves.
Determined not to lose contact with her mother and sister, Anna began writing them long letter detailing the ordinary activities of her days and the trials of life on the frontier: building a house, growing crops, raising a large family, and bartering for clothes and furniture. Often, the only time she had to write was very early in the morning or late at night when everyone else slept.
Having grown up with servants to tend to the housework, Anna often interrupts her letters with words like, 'I must go and get supper. I have biscuits to bake.' In order to save paper, Anna spared no empty space in her letters for punctuation, and sometimes when she had filled an entire page, she turned the page sideways and wrote over the earlier lines.
As devout Quakers, Anna and her husband Joseph were tied to a community with strong opinions about how its members should live. Anna moved smoothly through this strict community with her own kind of self-assurance, sharing stories of her friends and neighbors, discussing the lives and welfare of her children.
Anna's letters not only provide us with a revealing look at the life of a pioneer woman, but they also teach much about the medical practices, the religious and political goings-on of the day, and even about the structure of the pioneer family. Her passion to share the daily details of her life with her distant family provides the modern reader with a new insight into the determination, strength of character, and optimism it took to settle and survive on the early Ohio frontier."

Taryn's Review: This is a book for true lovers of American history, especially westward migration and rural history. Most people would probably find this book dull and boring, as Anna is just re-telling her daily life throughout the letters, but for history nuts like myself, it's chocked full of interesting information.

What struck me most throughout the book is how often Anna's family was plagued with sickness. We take for granted that we can go to Wal-Mart or some other 24-hour store and pick up medicine to ease our symptoms until we can get to the doctor for a diagnosis and better treatment. The smallest of illness could quickly escalate in Anna's world and leave someone hanging in the balance of life and death.

Anna's family often struggled for goods and in her letters she covertly, yet sometimes quite overtly, asked for goods to tide her family over. In other letters and diaries I have read, sewing and mending was a hated chore and Anna was always speaking of how she had to prepare or mend new clothing for the changing season. She got pretty distraught at one point when winter came early and clothing for her boys weren't prepared by her yet.

Anna's letters are a reminder that she was human, like you and I, and not a purely a figure of history books. She experienced happiness, sadness, weariness, and loneliness; feelings that we still feel today. Some of the letters can be mundane and dull, but that was life (still is!) and I'm glad to have read Anna's letters. The letters beginning around 1826 and if you really enjoy history, pick up this one and give it a try.

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