A Sweet, Separate Intimacy: Women Writers of the American Frontier
edited by Susan Cummins Miller

Texas Tech University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-89672-618-5.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 10/24/2008

Anthologies/Collections; Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: American Women in Their Cultural/Historical Context

With this outstanding collection, editor Susan Cummins Miller has given us a remarkable gift: the works of thirty-four women writers who lived from the early days of the American frontier until midway through the twentieth century. Published in 2000 and commendably reissued by Texas Tech University Press in its full, original length, A Sweet, Separate Intimacy makes a vitally important contribution to our understanding and appreciation of the lives and work of women writers who would otherwise continue in the obscurity into which many of them have fallen.

With the exception of a few such notable writers as Willa Cather, Mary Austin, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the women represented here have not been read since their original publication. The search that turned them up was a "treasure hunt," Miller says, as she followed trails of footnotes and buried references to bring us reports from the wild places of the frontier, written by women who traveled the difficult roads sometimes alone, sometimes in company, but always in partnership with their pens. They wrote letters home, or wrote essays for publication, or wrote after the fact, but they wrote. And wrote, and—luckily for us—kept on writing.

Four of the writers in the anthology are Native Americans. More than half wrote before the years of the Civil War. One, Elizabeth Custer, wrote to immortalize her husband; another, Frances Gage, immortalized Sojourner Truth. The intrepid Isabella Bird wrote with her heart in her mouth about her climb up Long's Peak (what in the world was she wearing?). Caroline Kirkland wrote with her tongue in her cheek about the enormous lot of gear that was packed into the wagon that carried her and her family into the wilderness, "which we then, in our greenness, considered indispensable. We have since learned better."

All of these women writers had an appreciative eye for domestic detail. We read about adobe houses in Los Angeles (Helen Jackson) and the tents and earthen lodges of the Western tribes (Alice Fletcher), about food and gardens and husbands and children and births and illness and deaths, about women's hopes and dreams and disillusionments. Men don't record these homely details in their stories—they can't. Women do, at least, these women have, and it's a good thing, too, for how else can we know about the lives of real people as they heroically settled down to carving homes and schools and towns out of a wild land? I must personally confess to a happy moment of recognition when I turned a page and found a long poem by Rose Hartwick Thorpe, "Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight," which I memorized as a girl for my own personal pleasure, because I loved the poem's story and its strong, ringing lines.

Miller has also given us brief but valuable biographical essays about each writer, placing her in the context of her time and giving us a sense of the shape of her literary work. These, together with sources, a full bibliography, and the rich treasures of the writings themselves, make for an extraordinarily powerful and unique volume. Many, many thanks to Susan Cummins Miller for an remarkable anthology that belongs in every collection of women's and Western literature.

Susan Cummins Miller is also the author of the Frankie MacFarlane Mysteries (Texas Tech). She worked as a field geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and taught geology and oceanography before turning to writing full time. She is a contributor to SCN's What Wildness is This. She lives in Tucson AZ. Visit her website.

Check out our interview with the author of A Sweet, Separate Intimacy.

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