Silly me. Here I pride myself in my pioneer spirit when it comes to the weather--hot or cold, rain or shine, braving howling winds or baking pavement. I am an inveterate walker. Morning and night, and of late completely bundled up in many layers of clothing, I walk to my bus stop for my daily commute to and from work. But a week ago I was utterly defeated by the Arctic freeze that hit the US and sunk temperatures here in Nebraska to as low as -25F with the windchill. I stayed home instead of venturing outdoors on the coldest couple of days. So much for that pioneer spirit. I'll pass on a potential case of frost bite, thank you very much. After reading The Lieutenant's Lady by Bess Streeter Aldrich, however, I'm feeling less smug about my Midwest heartiness. The descriptions in the book brought home to me just what cold really means.
Back in the 1860s when Nebraska wasn't even a state, just a barely tamed territory, and the tamed part of the equation was debatable, young Linnie Colsworth has come from her very citified eastern home to visit her cousin Cynthia. Both young women are of a similar age, if not of a similar disposition. One dark, "not made to be flirtatious" but practical and intelligent, and the other fair and coquettish turning heads wherever she goes. Cynthia knows her allure and she uses it catching the eyes and attention of many a young man including Army Lt. Norman Stafford with his strong face and well-knit uniformed figure and as handsome as any other possible beau about.
Linnie had been listening to Cynthia sing his praises and upon finally meeting him finds him to be fine and strangely attractive after all. "There was something about that grave manner, that lean sunburned face, those steady gray eyes." Linnie can only seem to be cordial or cold, friendly or unfriendly compared to Cynthia's confident coyness. Linnie is disparaging of her own looks which she believes to be only ladylike and uninteresting--"sort of a female calf", though Lt. Stafford sings her praises nonetheless . . .
"He was sensible and interesting, treating her as though she were an intelligent person and not a flirt or a dolt."
. . . calling her a true friend to himself and Cynthia.
It's not that Linnie doesn't have her share of attractiveness or attention from a few eligible young men, but she doesn't quite realize, or admit to herself anyway, just how taken she is with Lt. Stafford. It's all but a given that Cynthia will become betrothed to Norman, but that doesn't put an end to her flirtatiousness. And when Lt. Stafford travels to his post at one of the northern forts when duty calls the idea is that when spring comes and better weather arrives Cynthia will travel upriver to be with him and they will finally wed.
Linnie finds herself wondering what the lieutenant would think if he knew what was underneath Cynthia's dainty soft ways, if he realized just how self-centered she was. "But a man in love never saw through that kind." Life is so queer. She finds herself thinking about Norman Stafford, who is thinking about Cynthia, who has been chatting up yet another potential suitor. In the end Cynthia marries the other man and gives as her excuse that Norman's letters had stopped arriving, and what is she to do? She begs Linnie to break the news to Norman. So when Linnie begins her return journey home by way of Sioux City, she detours thinking only to deliver the news to Norman in person.
The year is 1868, however, and traveling up the Missouri River from a bustling and up and coming city such as Omaha to the wilds of the Dakotas and on to Montana Territory where there are only Army Forts is not a journey to be taken lightly. Her rashness will have repercussions and the news she brings is not exactly welcome. Perhaps Linnie isn't truthful to herself even in deciphering her true motives, but once she's there the realization sets in just how improper her behavior has been for a respectable young woman.
Linnie's journey there and back is truly harrowing and will test her limits. Nebraska was not yet even a state, but merely a territory as were the Dakotas and Montana where she ultimately must travel to to deliver her verbal 'dear John letter'. A journey by steamship up the Missouri takes weeks and travel is interrupted by raging rivers, sandbars and marauding Indians. And that is in the summer. Her voyage back is beset by problems with the weather, which in October is practically winter. Her mantra becomes "I can stand it." Literally she goes to the end of the world and back again both physically and emotionally.
If you're curious about what happens to Linnie, Lt. Stafford and Cynthia, here's the little nudge from me to go and pick up the book. Beware, though, if you read the book description on either the back cover or online more of the plot will be revealed. It won't ruin the pleasure, but I always like approaching a new story without too much information.
This is what I hope is only the first of many books about or set in Nebraska, the Plains or the West in general I will read this year. It's strange to read about the city I live in, recognizing street names and references and trying to imagine it as an up-and-coming place yet still part of the wilds really. The characters talk about traveling to the "States", of which Nebraska would soon become part. Although born in Iowa Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954) lived in Nebraska most of her life. I've got a number of other books by her as well as a biography of her life. The Lieutenant's Lady is a later book, published in 1942, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. I hope to visit her home, which is not far from Omaha. You can read more about her here.