- - Thursday, April 3, 2014


By Martha Summerhayes
Introduction by Louise Barnett
Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, $19.95, 308 pages, illustrated

In our time when we can fly across the world in a day and cross the breadth of the North American continent in a few hours, it is wonderful to read a book that reminds us what it was like to live in the Southwest nearly a century-and-a-half ago — or, indeed, even to travel there.

When Martha Dunham Summerhayes, a young Army wife, and her older Civil War veteran husband needed to get there from his first posting at Fort Russell in Wyoming Territory’s Cheyenne, it was no simple matter.

“In 1874, there were no railroads in Arizona, and all troops which were sent to that distant territory either marched overland through New Mexico, or were transported by steamer from San Francisco down the coast, and up the Gulf of California to Fort Yuma … [then] up the Valley of the Gila to the southern posts, or continued up the Colorado River by steamer … whence they marched to the posts in the interior.”

If life in the cramped officers’ quarters of Fort Russell were an adjustment for an Easterner whose only experience of the wider world had been a sojourn in the genteel home of a German general in Hanover, imagine the culture shock of encountering the remote Arizonan outposts.

In her introduction, Louise Barnett, professor of American studies at Rutgers University, gamely tries to interpret Summerhayes‘ attitudes in the contrasting attitudes of her day and ours. It is more fruitful, I think, for readers just to sit back and view things through her eyes, or rather her perceptions set down on paper three decades after she had left that still very wild West.

What she had found there was aridity and cactuses and the ubiquitous rattlesnakes that necessitated “buffalo robes under our mattresses and around them a hair lariat, ‘Snakes won’t cross over that.’” No wonder she writes, “I did not like these desert places, and they came to have a horror for me.” Not surprising for one whose notion of the desert came from the eponymous novel by the French writer Pierre Loti. However, with time, she came to appreciate its strange attractions and even to admire aspects of the American Indian culture she observed.

However, before Summerhayes could be appalled or enchanted by the strange badlands of Arizona, she had to get there. Although she was no stranger to tough sea voyages — returning from Germany, there was “a most terrific cyclone in mid-ocean, in which we nearly foundered” — this seemingly interminable journey by steamer had its own horrors.

“What we endured for lack of ice and good food on that never-to-be-forgotten voyage down the Pacific coast and up the Gulf of California in the summer of 1874 … the meats turned green, and when the steward went down into the refrigerator, which was somewhere below the quarterdeck, to get provisions for the day, every woman held a bottle of salts to her nose, and the officers fled to the forward part of the ship. The odor which ascended from that refrigerator was indescribable: it lingered and would not go. It followed us to the table, and when we tasted the food we tasted the odor … Finally, I could not go below at all, but had a baked sweet potato brought on deck, and lived several days upon that diet.”

No wonder the poor lady’s thirst became “abnormal,” and her craving for fresh milk and cool drinks grew. At a port of call, she bought a dozen coconuts and drank their liquid. After a diet of thick, sweet, canned condensed milk, no wonder she longed for a “glass of fresh sweet milk.” Summerhayes is such a vivid writer that as she conveys her thirst, it is almost impossible for the reader not to share it.

Peripatetic Army life took her on to New Mexico and Texas before she returned to settle back East. She had a capacity for savoring what she could along the way: “the perfume of the wood violet … and the delicate odor of the Cape jessamine … wafted about me” [at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio].

This and her general ability to accentuate the positive saves her warts-and-all memoir of her “unusually rough early experiences” from being either whiny or sour and makes it a delightful glimpse into a past era.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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