Monday, March 21, 2011

Book Review: Land of the Burnt Thigh

This book is probably the most amazing and engrossing memoir I've ever read. First published in 1938, it is Edith Eudora Kohl's account of homesteading in South Dakota with her sister in the first decade of the 20th century. One point that she stresses in this book is that the American frontier lasted much longer that is usually acknowledged - a fact I'd noted before in the late setting of many Western novels by authors who lived at that time. The last wave of pioneers, one of the largest, continued right up until the U.S. entry in World War 1. This book is a story of those later homesteading days, which were every bit as challenging as the early ones.

Although it might seem surprising, young single women homesteading alone or in groups was not uncommon. Many different types of people - in fact you might say every type imaginable - filed on homestead claims, for a variety of reasons. The Ammons sisters' reasons for leaving St. Louis for South Dakota, a combination of health and financial reasons, were common to many. For a number of young people, both men and women, homesteading was a temporary affair, a few months of holding down a claim to gain ownership of land that they could sell or mortgage to get a start in whatever life they had chosen. Others saw the value in the land itself, and with the industrialization of the East, land prices had become so high there that homesteading on the Western plains was their only opportunity. The more permanent settlers sometimes looked down on those who got their deed and left the land without improving it, calling them 'landgrabbers.'

But Edith and Ida Mary Ammons stayed - although the first time they saw their isolated claim and tar-paper shack they wanted nothing more than to head back home first thing the next morning. How they slowly became accustomed to their surroundings, made the shack into a home and eventually grew to love the prairie land that seemed so desolate at first, is only a small part of the story. A casual offer of a job, and Edith was running the local "proof-sheet" newspaper - an institution that came into being to publish the settlers' notices of proving up required by law. Then came the opening of the Lower Brule Indian reservation to homesteaders. The book vividly describes the crowds of thousands that crammed into the tiny settlements to register for the huge lottery that awarded claims to the Lucky Numbers drawn. As the new settlers flowed in, the Ammons girls moved onto a homestead in the Brule, and before long were running their own newspaper, the post office, a general store and Indian trading post, becoming influential figures in the new and growing community.

Their story is filled with too many adventures to be briefly described. They barely survived a fierce blizzard, helped to outwit claim-jumpers, lived through a plague of rattlesnakes, a severe drought, and prairie fires - and no matter what happened, the mail had to go through and the newspaper had to be printed. The Land of the Burnt Thigh (the title, by the way, comes from the Indians' name for the Brule, the story behind which is explained in the book) was filled with colorful characters, from cowboys to Indians to the many different settlers who became the Ammons girls' neighbors and friends. The book is well and engagingly written, so filled with interesting detail and incidents that it kept me eagerly turning the pages - well, clicking away at the Kindle page-turner, to be precise.

Land of the Burnt Thigh is available in paperback and for free on Kindle. The Kindle copy is excellent, with no formatting problems or typos that I noticed. Highly recommended!


Suzanne Lieurance said...

I love books like this. I'll have to get a copy. Thanks for the review.

jtwebster books said...

What a wonderful read. I'm going to see if I can find a copy.