America's unsung pioneer women; Pioneer Women, by Joanna L. Stratton. Introduction by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. New York: Simon & Schuster. $16.95.
"Pioneer Women" makes me wish that, in addition to America's Thanksgiving Day , there might be a yearly pause -- with everything halted in schools and homes, in fields, factories, and offices -- to pay tribute to the pioneers of our nation. Especially the women pioneers, who shared with men the hardships, privations, agony, and triumphs, fighting forces of nature, sometimes catastrophic, giving their lives shortened by such struggles, walking in the shadows of their husbands, unsung by historians.
Joanna Stratton zeroes in on Kansas for her passionate and tender story of its women pioneers. While exploring the attic of her grandmother's home there, she found a file containing 800 autobiographies of Kansan women, solicited by her great-grandmother, Lilla Day Monroe, a 19th-century Kansas suffragist, lawyer, and publisher.The book contains excerpts from the best of those submitted.
Fascinated and stimulated by what was revealed in these papers, Joanna Stratton has written a book about women who stood stubbornly against the tough challenges of Kansas --rential rains, prairie fires, blizzards, cyclones, grasshoppers, and, above all, loneliness, intensified by the flat, vast, treeless expanse of prairie.
Melora Espy, who left her home at 17, already the principal of a girls' school, to come to Kansas, wrote: "To forsake culture, prosperity, and peace, for crude living, poverty, adversity and war, requires a poise of soul few possess."
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s excellent introduction refers to the Kansas pioneer memories as "fragrant and melancholy. . . ."
Fragrant indeed were the small joys of visits with distant neighbors, picnics , churchgoing, standing by one another in times of need, serving as midwives to bring new life and new hope to sod dugouts and houses. Worse than melancholy was the inhumanity recounted in the chapter "Wounds of War." In the four years preceding the Civil War, Kansas was the terrible proving ground of abolition and pro-slavery forces. The hatred and massacres are a blot on history. When war erupted, Kansas was taken into the Union as a free state, its men serving with losses higher than those of any other Northern state.
Occasionally throughout these pioneer chronicles, a woman's courage and spunk are enough to turn the tide. There's the story of the woman alone in her house with her children when she saw two Indians in flight from some drunken soldiers. She opened her door to shelter them, and when the soldiers threatened to break it down to reach the trembling Indians, she aimed her gun and told them she'd fire. The soldiers retreated.
Some rare pictures from the Kansas Historical Society as well as those belonging to the author reach solemnly out from the past to remind us of the role these women played in the development of America.
Readers owe a debt of gratitude to Joanna L. Stratton.