THE SHIRLEY LETTERS FROM THE CALIFORNIA MINES, 1851 - 1852
Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe

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Edited by Marlene Smith-Baranzini
Santa Clara University,  Mar 2001
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

In 1851 Louise Clappe followed her doctor husband into the California foothills. They set up housekeeping and a physician practice among a chain of gold mining camps along the Feather River. Louise was one of only four women in the community of Rich Bar, Indian Bar, and various other bars, a series of gravel spits thrown up by the river on its course down from the Sierra Nevada range. On these crowded surfaces, littered with piles of excavated gravel and homes built from whatever material was available, a growing number of people from many nations pursued the lucky strike, hammering out lives for themselves in a territory with a minimal social structure.

Louise Clappe described all this for the Marysville Herald in the then-popular literary form of letters to her sister. It is a unique viewpoint of life in the mining camps, because of the rarity of women, because of Louise’s love of adventure, so atypical of the women of her culture, and because she was able to observe and set it all down in such detail.

THE SHIRLEY LETTERS should be required reading for all writers of Western romance novels. This is how it really was. Our heroine doesn’t laugh dauntless at the most dangerous trail. She wins praise for not screaming, when she was too terrified to make a sound. She doesn’t snap resentfully at her captor at the end of a long day’s travel. She is sick with exhaustion but somehow manages to keep going because her husband thinks it best. She doesn’t have a sure-footed native guide to lead her and her husband through the mountains. When they get lost she does enjoy a blissful sleep under the stars – ignorant of predators human and animal. When rioting starts in the camp, she doesn’t quell the mob or race to anybody’s rescue. She retires to the hillside above with two other gentlewomen, to watch.

The real Louise Clappe, who did not have the adventures of romances, did have adventure and happiness of her own. She learned to keep house with the makeshifts of a small cabin, much to her amusement. She made friends with a gourmet cook who had somehow landed in Rich Bar. She went on solitary walks where she could enjoy the beauty and peace, and where she wrote of this balm to her spirit for the readers of the Marysville Herald. She received callers from among the more cultivated residents, Spanish and American. She stifled her fear and went down a mine shaft, so she could explain it to her readers. She learned to her horror that her little isolated community was luxury itself, compared to the privations suffered by the supposedly wealthy residents of a neighboring community. Most amazing of all, partly because of the casualness with which she described it, is the fact that residents who stayed in the canyon for the winter went without many foods from February to May, because May was the soonest that a pack train was able to reach them over the high, rugged trail. When Louise and her husband finally left at the approach of the second winter, their community had brought itself to a ragged and lawless end with the desperation attending the failure of the mines.

THE SHIRLEY LETTERS is a book for historians, not a treatise for women’s libbers. Louise had a wanderlust rare among women of her time, but she was still a woman of her time. She wrote disparagingly of women who didn’t know their place, fervently preferred the separation of gender roles, and eloquently described the gentle nature of femininity. Another contrast in thought between our two times is her description of a meeting with a group of Native Americans, in which she clearly had no inkling that another race might have different standards of beauty than her own. It is educational for us to be reminded of the changes in our attitudes over the last 150 years.

Writing style has also changed over that period of time. My readers who were bitten by the writing bug early probably carry a grudge against a high school teacher who used to edit our most beautiful passages with comments like "wordy" or "overly ornate," or the deadly red slash. I forgave my high school teacher while reading this book. "Dame Shirley" (Louise’s pen name) loved nature and tried very hard to convey in poetic flights the spiritual quality of the experience to her readers. As an example, I remember a sentence about lizards playing where she sat, which to us would have been more effective at half the length. On one occasion, when she went on like this for three pages, I had to go away completely. Instead, I read an email thread about the possibility that we could in a few years be eating cloned meat grown in lumps instead of on an animal. This restored my chemical balance enough so I could return to the Letters.

Where the author’s writing still shines today is her delicately ironic humor. After the three pages mentioned above, she redeemed herself immediately with a tongue-in-cheek description of the types of improvised candlesticks used in the camp. One of the funniest passages in the book is a description of a drunken parade. Begging her readers’ pardon for not giving a temperance lecture, "Dame Shirley" caricatured the participants and their solemn antics with a precision that left me rocking with laughter.

This is not the first time The Shirley Letters have been published in book form. To this edition Marlene Smith-Baranzini contributes a biography of the author. She has edited the letters for a "smoother narrative." Also included are an index, maps and an explanation of place names, and an impressive array of footnotes to explain the contemporary cultural references. The combination makes this edition of THE SHIRLEY LETTERS a valuable historical reference. Louise Clappe herself made it an opportunity for today’s readers who like the feeling of time travel.

Sep 2001 Version Review Published on the Independent Reviews Site
Nov 2003 Revised Review
 

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