I love a writer who teases out the connections from a tangle of sources, a writer whose fascination with her subject shows, who recognizes a deeper truth. And I have found a writer who does all that and then some: Lesley Poling-Kempes. Her most recent work is Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and Their Adventures in the American Southwest.
The true stories of the remarkable women profiled here are powerfully compelling. Beginning her narrative in 1903, a time when most women's choices were distinctly narrow, Poling-Kempes describes a group of females who took risks, made leaps, and created lives of authenticity and grace. Giving up sidesaddles for riding astride in practical khakis, they allowed themselves to belong to the lands and people of a new place, a raw frontier. When roads were few and either dusty or muddy, "Their journeys took them to Monument Valley and Rainbow Bridge, into Canyon de Chelly and across the high mesas of the Hopi, down through the Grand Canyon and over the red desert of the Four Corners, to the pueblos along the Rio Grande and the Hispanic villages in the mountains between Santa Fe and Taos." They left behind easy comfort, family and friends, and social expectations. They pushed against the norms to follow what called them and, in the process, forged larger models of what a woman's life could be. These women opened fresh territory for all of us, and played a part in shaping American culture.
Yet they were nearly forgotten. When Poling-Kempes went looking for more information about one particular woman, Carol Bishop Stanley, who founded the famed Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, New Mexico, there was little to nothing written about her in histories of the place. Eventually, Poling-Kempes found some oral histories and "a handful of written accounts and letters," which sent her tracking not just Stanley but over a dozen other fascinating women whose stories were twined together through friendships and landscapes. Her research has been productive.
- Natalie Curtis Burlin, for instance, was one of Carol Stanley's friends. A gifted musician, she became a pioneer in preserving the sacred songs and stories of Native Americans. She had the respectful ear of President Theodore Roosevelt and brought a new awareness of Native culture to policy makers and to Eastern Americans.
- A Boston Brahmin, Mary Cabot Wheelwright became a part-time resident and a full-time supporter of Santa Fe after visiting Carol Stanley. Eventually, she founded the renowned Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian there.
- Alice Ellen Klauber was a painter and a wealthy woman from San Diego. Her travels and adventures in Arizona and New Mexico, often arranged by Natalie Curtis Burlin, were great encounters with the majesty of the land and the native people, and ever after shaped her work and interests. Klauber painted the Southwest, and in San Diego, she founded and supported many art events and organizations, and brought great artworks to the city.
- Elsie Clews Parsons was a sociologist and anthropologist, the daughter of a wealthy New York banker, who found herself in studying the tribes of the Southwest and Mexico. Her book, Pueblo Indian Religion, is considered a classic, and she was the first woman to become president of the American Anthropological Association.
Poling-Kempes brings these women, and more, to life by giving thought to their individual realities while presenting them in the context of their time and their personal connections. Carefully drawing out an impressive web of relationships, she illustrates the power of this female network, and the support the women offered each other. She also gives a glimpse of the hardships they weathered just to experience the harsh beauty of the still-wild land, as well as the life storms they endured in order to make their lives their own. Even now, there are plenty of women, myself included, who can recognize those struggles.
Weaving individual threads into a larger picture, Poling-Kempes has created a narrative tapestry relevant to readers everywhere. As she says, it is the story of "New Women stepping bravely into the New World, of Anglo America waking up to Native America, of inconspicuous success and ambitious failure." That story includes plenty of drama, politics, romance, and heartbreak, too.
As it happens, Poling-Kempes is writing about women's impact on a landscape that I have explored with heart, from Santa Fe to San Diego and points in between. My experiences and interests overlapped with these Southwestern foremothers, and kept me fully engaged. This phenomenon was likely at work for the author, as well, who has lived for many years in the very places that Carol Bishop Stanley loved. Yet even readers who have never been west of the Mississippi will find themselves fascinated by these Ladies of the Canyons, who liberated themselves into lives of passion and purpose. In doing that, they loosened bonds for all of us.
After several decades of living with her husband and family near Abiquiu and the Chama River Valley of northern New Mexico, Lesley Poling-Kempes' writing is a paean to the land she loves. Her novel Bone Horses won both a Tony Hillerman Award for Best Fiction and the WILLA Award for Contemporary Fiction. Her nonfiction includes The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West, which won a Zia Award for Excellence. Learn more on her website.
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