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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Book review: Letters from Yellowstone by Diane Smith

I never meant to read this book. I bought this book at a used bookstore, as a favor at my wedding. My sister (who lived in Wyoming part of last year) took it, and then she gave it to my mother, who gave it back to me. I had no interest in it, but my sister and my mother's strong recommendations did make me give it a second look.

It is 1898 and Alexandra has been studying botany at Columbia University. She hears about an expedition to Yellowstone and applies to be the field botanist, obscuring her gender. When she arrives, Professor Merriam, the man in charge, is horrified, but there's not much she can do. A wealthy woman explorer at the park gives Alexandra her own tent and the Merriam is really out of complaints.

Over the course of the "summer," which I'm putting in quotation marks because other then July, it seems very cold and winter-like (snowing at the end of May), the research team collects and classifies plants, insects, a raven, and takes weather measurements. They encounter a poet, a family of Native Americans, a crazy Count poacher, and there are a few emergencies and even a death. But they continue with their scientific pursuits as best they can, in rather primitive circumstances, gaining my admiration, if not my desire to follow in their footsteps.

The book is an epistolary, written in letters. It's not a convention these days, but it was at the time this story takes place, and I liked that the author used not only language and morays of the time, but also used their novel-writing style. There isn't really a plot per se, although from scene to scene there is anticipation and worry about how certain situations will be resolved that keep the action moving forward. It was a brief, sweet, thoughtful look at the state of nature in another century, when scientists and naturalists killed animals in the name of progress and study, and when the knowledge of Native Americans of the flora and fauna was universally dismissed as myth. It was refreshing to be so immersed in another time, as Ms. Smith did a fantastic job of recreating the era. A great read for anyone interested in sciences or the American West.

2 comments:

Kay said...

I think it was the epistolary angle that first got me interested. In fact, I think I found out about it after reading another epistolary book - perhaps the Guernsey Potato Peel Pie book. I do remember liking it.

Anne Bennett said...

I remember reading this book several years ago and really enjoying it. It was such a different time than how we live now. Thanks for the happy reminder of this book.