One of my favorite novels of last year – or any year, for that matter – was The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman. Set in the Appalachians in North Carolina it is the story of one woman’s struggle to cope with the trials and tribulations of a pioneer woman during the Civil War and its aftermath.
Recently, I finished Trials of the Earth about another pioneer woman and I was struck by the similarities between the two stories. However, there is one big difference: Trials of the Earth is not fiction.
It is rather amazing that it was ever published. The book’s serendipitous path to publication began in the early ‘30’s when a young Mississippi writer, Helen Dick Davis, first met Mary Mann Hamilton (1866-ca. 1936), who was living nearby in her daughter’s home. After they became friends, Davis became enthralled by the stories that the older woman told her about her life as a pioneer wife and mother who spent many years cooking for boarding houses located in lumber camps in the Mississippi Delta.
Davis encouraged Hamilton to write down what she remembered about those experiences. At first Davis resisted but eventually relented and became obsessed with getting it all down on paper.
In the preface to the manuscript Davis wrote in 1933:
When I began to beg her to write down the account of her life, if only as a record for her children and grandchildren, she did it just to please me. She wrote it piecemeal at first, just scattered experiences, ten or fifteen pages at a time written with pencil on cheap tablet paper; stories of terrible floodwaters, cyclones, feuds to the death, escaped Negro convicts….
By spring of 1933 Mary Hamilton had given me 150,000 words on this book. I have edited it, worked over it with her, and guided her in her choice of material, but I have in no case added to nor changed what she wrote….
I want to reassure the reader that my presence does not enter the book. I have not touched her style, nor embellished her material. It is a direct and simple autobiography.
Despite what Davis wrote, her editing task was monumental. Hamilton had received practically no education and her spelling, grammar, and punctuation had to be corrected in order to make the manuscript readable. But Hamilton’s voice comes through clearly; the storytelling is unpolished and unvarnished.
After my morning work of milking, churning, cleaning house, getting dinner and supper at one time, and cutting a dress for someone, I would help the children in the field all afternoon. Then I would come in at sundown and milk, while Leslie [her young daughter] finished supper…. After we ate supper…while the children did the dishes, I started making a dress I had cut out that morning, and I never got up from the machine till that dress was finished. Everyone I made meant a dollar cash…. I would make a dollar sewing almost every day.
Accidents, illness, and death were ever present in Mary Hamilton’s life. And so were tornadoes, fires, panthers, bears, snakes, and even escaped convicts – and floods. There is a harrowing account of her being trapped in a flood when the nearby Sunflower River overflowed its levee.
She found herself stranded with her small daughter and two month old baby on top of a stump located on a ridge with the rain coming down and the flood waters rising rapidly.
It was midafternoon, and the water was up over the stump, lapping my feet. The old tree that I had been so afraid of in the morning was still standing. Now I prayed it would fall on us, kill all three of us at once and end this suspense. About that time I saw the top kind of quiver. I shut my eyes, clutched my children tight, and to myself said, “Thank God.” It came down with a crash; cold water poured over us. I opened my eyes. It had missed us by a few feet….
Of course, I was glad it had missed us but disappointed to be facing again this slow sure death. I could see no possible hope….
…[T]he only prayer I could think of to ask God was to let them die first so I could take care of them to the end.
There is even a mystery at the heart of Mary Hamilton’s account of the struggles and adversity that she and her family faced. I’m not going to give that away. But her dedication written in the front of the book serves as a teaser:
To my husband’s people
whoever they are,
and wherever they may be
The book was rejected by Little, Brown in 1933. It resurfaced in the early ‘90’s when it was published by the University of Mississippi Press, but without the permission of Hamilton’s heirs. After the heirs regained the rights to the book, and eighty-three years after initially rejecting it, Little, Brown published it.
A reviewer wrote in the New York Times that Mary Hamilton “was a fairly ordinary woman, but one whom necessity and native grit teased to a grand self-possession and authority.”
The hell, you say. This was no ordinary woman; this was one tall woman.