Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Come Spring...

Many years ago I was part of a Western Writers of America project to compile an anthology of profiles of women of the American West. My subject was Dr. Georgia Arbuckle Fix who practiced medicine on the western frontier of Nebraska in the late nineteenth century. I had a medical background of sorts and wondered why a woman would choose life in a dugout alone and drive her carriage miles and miles across the prairie to see patients. The story fascinated me and set a pattern for my writing for many years to come.
Dr. Georgia Arbuckle Fix

When I first turned my hand to fiction, I wrote a novel based on Dr. Fix’s life, only to learn later that the great Mari Sandoz had already done that and done a better job than I did. Still, my version, Mattie, won a Spur Award from Western Writers of America, an award that angered some male members who thought it should go to a men’s adventure tale.

I went on to write about more women of the American West—a young girl in East Texas (not really the West but….), a young orphan living on the streets of Fort Worth and crossing paths with Long Haired Jim Courtright and Luke Short. These short novels were sold through the Doubleday Double D Western Book Club, mostly to prison libraries.

I grew ambitious and wanted to do a long novel that would sell in bookstores. I proposed a fictional biography of Elizabeth Bacon Custer, wife and widow of General George Armstrong Custer who died at Little Bighorn. Bantam/Doubleday put major publicity behind it, and it probably sold better than any book I’ve ever written. I followed it with fictional biographies of Jessie Benton Frémont, Wild West Show cowgirl Lucille Mulhall, and Etta Place, the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend. And then there was a young-adult book called Extraordinary Women of the American West, a collection of short biographies of sixty-eight women, from pioneers to contemporary.

I admired these women and loved investigating their lives, finding out why, in many cases, they’d left family and comfort behind to strike out for adventure. Many came with husbands, but some did not. All came with a sense of breaking bonds and leaving constrictions behind. They had a curiously optimistic outlook—a favorite saying was, “Come spring…” Come spring, the crops would make, the cattle would produce, life would be better. Always looking toward spring, they minimalized the hardships of life in a dugout or on the cattle trail or an isolated ranch.

“Come spring” is a great motto for all of us.

~Judy Alter, author of Extraordinary Texas Women, contributor to Grace & Gumption: Stories of Fort Worth Women, and many more

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