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"Maverick Women" offers good dish on some remarkable 19th-century women of the West.

By Christine Wald-Hopkins

JUNE 8, 1998: 

Maverick Women: 19th Century Women Who Kicked Over the Traces, by Frances Laurence (Manifest Publications). Paper, $18.50.

READING THIS collection of biographical sketches is a bit like listening to family secrets from your old Aunt Bernice: You put up with the quaint diction and the lipstick on her teeth because you know she's got some good dirt to dish.

Maverick Women relates the life tales of 15 women in the frontier U.S. They're "mavericks," according to biographer Frances Laurence, because they wandered unbranded and independent through life. Laurence's selection ranges from a highway robber to a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Barmaid Jane Barnes opens the collection. It was 1812. Fair and buxom and 19, Barnes caught the eye of Donald McTavish, who was about to depart Britain for the Northwest Fur Company's most remote trading post. Promised trunks of new clothes on departure and an annuity on her return, Barnes agreed to accompany McTavish to the New World. She became, says Laurence, the "first tourist"--first Anglo woman in the Columbia River delta--and her version of walker's shorts and Kodak were lavish, décolleté gowns and a sneer at the natives. Unfortunately, beauty and wit had no commerce in Jane Barnes, and she also apparently became the first Mrs. Malaprop of the New World before she was stranded on a beach.

Most of the characters Laurence presents are less passively ornamental than Barnes. Tractable and innocent when she was married-off as the 27th wife to Mormon patriarch Brigham Young, Ann Eliza Webb Young demonstrated unprecedented chutzpah by running away and filing for divorce from the Prophet in 1873. Laurence describes the formidable domestic arrangements of Young's household (Lion House with its floors of bedrooms and huge tables for his harem and herds of children; the spill-over dwellings for new wives; the Prophet's own observation that, had he to do it over again, he'd grant each wife a separate dwelling--despite the toll that would exact from the foot-weary husband). She then describes the federal and territorial legal crisis Eliza's suit precipitated, forcing Utah to grapple with the issue of polygamy.

Several of these women participated in the gold rushes. Taking the pen name "Dame Shirley," Louise Clappe chronicled life in the mining towns of California. In letters to her sister that were later published in The Marysville Herald, Clappe's descriptions of the camps have become historical documents significant for their attention to domestic detail. Of the hotels that sprang up, for example, each had "...a large apartment, part of which is fitted up as a barroom, with that eternal crimson calico which flushes the social life of the Golden State with its everlasting red."

Others are similarly notable for their writing, or the careers that developed when their writing was thwarted. "Mystery Poet" Ina Coolbrith is thankfully better remembered for her part in the San Francisco literary scene than for her poetic output. ("So many woes my Heart hath known," she wrote, "So true a child, am I, of suffering," etc.)

Laurence relates the story of Elizabeth Cochrane, whom we know as Nellie Bly, who went underground for stories and paved the way for women in journalism. She also writes of women passing as men.

The most impressively credentialed lives presented are the scientists': Astronomer Maria Mitchell, after whom a comet was named, became an honored professor at Vassar. Regionally, though not nationally, memorable was Bethenia Owens-Adair, who divorced a handsome deadbeat, went back to kindergarten at age 18, and worked her and her son's way through college and medical school, to become the first woman doctor in Oregon.

Laurence has selected interesting and varied lives to recreate. Unfortunately, her writing doesn't meet the standards of her subjects' accomplishments. She provides maddeningly few temporal guideposts, leaving some of her characters to swim in an amorphous, dateless 19th century. And her otherwise serviceable historic narrative is regularly interrupted by up-close-and-personal fictionalized moments plagued with cliché and romance-genre prose.

However, the collection is an easy introduction to some remarkable women, and it includes bibliographies for further reading. Pick it up and hear Sojourner Truth bait Frederick Douglass on the existence of God, or see how Highwaywoman Pearl Hart bargained her way out of Yuma Prison.

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