My maternal grandmother, born in the Utah Territory in 1891, liked to tell stories about our Mormon ancestors, who made the treacherous journey across the country to Salt Lake City in the 1840s. When one of her children faced a challenge, she would invoke the memory of those forebears and offer encouragement with the words: “Remember. You come of frontier stock.”
I thought of my grandmother’s exhortation when I read “Trials of the Earth,” Mary Mann Hamilton’s newly republished memoir about her life in the Mississippi Delta in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Volumes have been written about the impact of the frontier experience on the American character. This book describes the impact on one particular family. It is a riveting and instructive read.
Hamilton’s husband was a logger, and she accompanied him into the remote, undeveloped territory of the Mississippi Delta, where “cane, undergrowth, blackberry briars, grape and poison oak and muscadine vines” all grew to enormous size, forming a “great tangled mat.” As she describes, “a man couldn’t get through any of the woods without a compass in one hand and a cane axe in the other to blaze every foot of the way.” She was an excellent cook, and she helped support her family by running a boarding house for loggers, proud that she could earn “a man’s wages.” It was a mostly male environment. There was one year in which she didn’t see another woman.
“Trials of the Earth” covers the period between an unspecified year in the mid-1880s, when the author was 17 years old and about to be married, and shortly after her husband’s death in 1914. On one level, Hamilton’s memoir is a classic frontier story of courage, hardship and adventure.
A difference, however, between this book and most of the many volumes that have been written about the American frontier experience is that it is told from the perspective of a wife and mother. As such, it is also a story of everyday domestic life—of faith, family and the never-ending struggle for survival in an unforgiving land. Hamilton survived floods, tornadoes, and wolves, bears, panthers and wild hogs. She also survived her husband’s drunken binges and the loss of four of her nine children.
Hamilton, who died in 1936, wrote her book in the early 1930s and submitted it to a writing competition sponsored by the New York publishing house of Little, Brown. It didn’t win. Eight decades later, Little, Brown reconsidered its rejection and has now given “Trials of the Earth” new life with this belated publication. It probably helped that the University of Mississippi Press had discovered a copy of Hamilton’s rejected manuscript and published it in 1992 to positive reviews.
Hamilton is a natural-born storyteller, and her narrative never lags. She also has a sense for the telling detail. She evokes the power of a storm by describing how she protected the baby from the falling debris by placing him in the oven of her massive iron stove. The reader gets a sense of the extreme poverty in which the Hamilton family lived—and of the value they put on education—when she tells how she had to sell the family cows to pay for clothes and shoes so that the children could attend the school that was being established in a corner of the local store. The plum pudding that Hamilton made every year for her husband’s birthday on Nov. 18 had to last through Thanksgiving and Christmas.
One of the fascinating aspects of the book is the author’s description of the era’s child-rearing practices, which have changed beyond recognition in scarcely a century. Her children washed dishes, carried firewood, baked bread and did numerous other household chores. Six-year-old Nina minded her younger siblings while her mother worked. “You say those children, mere babies, couldn’t do” so much, Hamilton writes. “But I taught my children to work according to their age and strength. . . . I had to be strict for I didn’t have time to fool with them. So you see I could trust them. I had to.”
That trust extended to weapons. The Hamilton children learned to shoot at the age of 5 or 6. When young Frankie asks the schoolmaster if he can borrow his knife, the teacher obliges, no questions asked. If Hamilton were alive today, I can’t help thinking that she would be more agog at helicopter parents than at helicopters.
Life on the frontier was full of tragedy, often coupled with violence. Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the beloved “Little House” series of autobiographical novels about growing up on the American frontier, once said that there were things she left out of her books because they pertained to subjects she considered unsuitable for children. Hamilton, who is writing for adults, does not flinch from describing the violence, death and racism she observed in the Delta.
She writes about the lynching of black men, for example, and tells the story of a white man who cut off a lynching victim’s finger for a grisly “souvenir.” For several years, the Hamilton family lived near a prison farm, and she describes how guards once threw a black woman into the “bull pen,” the cellblock for male convicts. The woman didn’t survive the experience. These stories are unsettling, but they are part of the historical record. Hamilton’s first-person accounts are important testimonials about what used to be.
Hamilton concludes her book by giving thanks to God that her “main hope” has been realized: Each of her surviving children is “straight and honest.” Today some of her descendants still live in Mississippi. (Among them is a former governor, Ronnie Musgrove.) They are fortunate to have great-grandmother Mary Hamilton’s absorbing memoir to remind them that, like many other Americans, they come from frontier stock—and to inspire them to live up to that heritage.