The Powerful, Only Known First-Person Account of One Woman's Struggles and Triumphs Taming the Mississippi Delta
Near the end of her life, Mary Mann Hamilton (1866-c.1936) was encouraged to record her experiences as a female pioneer. The result is the only known firsthand account of a remarkable woman thrust into the center of taming the American South - surviving floods, tornadoes, and fires; facing bears, panthers, and snakes; managing a boardinghouse in Arkansas that was home to an eccentric group of settlers; and running a logging camp in Mississippi that blazed a trail for development in the Mississippi Delta. All this she tackled - and diligently wrote about in secrecy, in a diary that not even her family knew she kept - while caring for her children, several of whom didn't survive the perils of pioneer life. The extreme hard work and tragedy Hamilton faced are eclipsed only by her emotional and physical strength; her unwavering faith in her husband, Frank, a mysterious Englishman; and her tenacious sense of adventure.
An early draft of Trials of the Earth was submitted to a writers' competition sponsored by Little, Brown in 1933. It didn't win, and we almost lost the chance to bring this raw, vivid narrative to listeners. Eighty-three years later, in partnership with Mary Mann Hamilton's descendants, we're proud to share an irreplaceable piece of American history.
Conveyed in frank and expressive prose by a natural-born writer, and withheld for almost a lifetime, Trials of the Earth will resonate with listeners of history and fiction alike - an emotional testament to our ability to endure as well as the story of extraordinary love and the allure of pioneer life.
"A reminder of how punishing the physical struggle could be, and how unspeakably lonely a woman's life was when men were clearing the land." (New York Times Book Review)
"To read Hamilton's autobiography is to experience an extraordinary life of courage and hardship.... Hamilton, a born storyteller, has written a rich, simple narrative; her personal strength is surpassed only by the strength of her writing abilities." (Library Journal)
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Like a kick in the chest
Wow, I feel pretty complicated about this book. I was enraptured from the moment it started until the very end. But. Okay.
On the one hand, it offers a fascinating, nuanced, and beautifully terse account of gender during the late 1800s. This is written only in the way that a first-hand account could be - no part of it feels contrived or fantastical. It has all the grit and soul of a Steinbeck novel without any of the stupid, ten-page long metaphors or boring flowery language. Like listening to a good campfire story, this makes a great audiobook.
On the other hand, unsurprisingly, race relations and characterizations get more and more unsettling in the second half of the book. I think it is good to be reminded right now in 2016 of the straightforward, overt racism that permeated society then - to see how far we have come and to reflect on just how much farther we need to go. Sociologically, it's interesting (for example, there are parallels or lines of continuity that be could be drawn between the penal labor system in Mississipi described by Hamilton then and contemporary debates over the mass systematic imprisonment of black American men today). More on that note - our protagonist or really, antagonist, Frank Hamilton has a run-in with the law and warns Mary Hamilton never to trust the justice system in America. Yet, when Mary observes the same judicial system dispensing "justice" to black men, she is comforted by telling herself 'that's how it is - justice has to be served.' Of course, this is a tiny point to make in a book that carefully and consistently draws a boundary between black and white over and over again. All that is to say, I recognize how tedious and dull a work like this might be to POC - just another polarizing work in the long list of white American authors that present black Americans with the same essentializing stereotypes - except this time, the white author is a woman.
Anyway, I'm no dummy, I know that's how things were then, and I think the book is a fantastic historical account for what it is. I was riveted, caught up in it, and I admired the main character so much for her toughness and her kind of archaic wisdom - so, while she is compelling - it's important not to romanticize her tale too much and to use it instead to think critically about the early narratives that gave birth to American values today - revel in the good but don't accept the bad... reflect, question, and change.