Friday, 14 September 2012

BOOK REVIEW

A Prairie Infanta (1904) by Eva Wilder Brodhead

This short novel by Eva Wilder Brodhead is my contribution to Friday's Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase. You'll find plenty of good reviews of good books over there.

“Life,” he wrote, was at best “a rough proposition.”

It’s certainly a rough proposition for the Texas-born Keene, who, upon the death of his lovely Mexican wife Margarita, leaves his young daughter Lola in the foster care of a stranger and goes away to a mountain camp, to prospect for coal and, some day, return a wealthy mine owner.

Eva Wilder Brodhead (1870-1915), the American writer and poet, has written a charming story about the love and sacrifice of Miss Jane Combs for the sake of the motherless child Lola, a precocious girl of ten or twelve.

Jane, who lives alone in a shack just outside the little Colorado mining town of Aguilar, is more than happy to take Lola under her wing. She accepts the girl as her own no sooner the local doctor, a kindly man, and Keene besiege her to look after Lola in the latter’s absence.

Understandably, Lola has a streak of rebellion in her—her mother has just passed away and her father has “abandoned” her. She refuses to move in with Jane whom she distrusts and whose house she finds ugly. Instead, she approaches Senora Vigil, a Mexican woman who lives next door with her large family. Being half-Mexican, the girl wants to be with her kind of people. It doesn’t help matters that the Vigils don’t get along with Jane because of a dispute over a piece of land. Jane wants to return it to the Vigils but the law won’t let her.

"I will not go with you," Lola cries.

The Senora, in spite of her affinity with Lola, is reluctant to take the girl in as she has been left in Jane’s care. Nowhere to go, Lola decides to follow her father and runs away from the town but she soon finds herself in trouble—trapped in a deep gorge and on the verge of being swept away in a thunder storm. However, local cowherd Bev Gribble rescues her and takes her back to town where she is restored to Jane.

The next fifty-odd pages of the ebook describes the relationship between Jane and Lola and how the girl eventually realises the true worth of the woman, a complete stranger, who loved and cared for her as she would her own daughter—to the extent that the girl, who grows up into a vibrant teenager, scarcely remembers her own mother and rarely talks about her father’s return.

"I hoped you'd be able to lend me a hand,"
Mr. Keene tells Miss Jane Coombs.

A Prairie Infanta is the tender story of a noble woman whose sacrifices for the well-being of the girl are never too much, a woman who does everything in her grasp and capacity to keep her “daughter” happy. Jane does more than feed Lola or clothe her in finest dress. She also sends the girl to a paid school by mortgaging her house. When Keene fails in his prospect and desperately writes to Jane for funds, which he believes his daughter earns through housework elsewhere, she sends him money from her own meager savings.

Lola, of course, doesn’t suspect a thing. It’s only in the end that the full scale of Jane’s sacrifice is revealed to her, by no less a person than her own father who one day returns as a wealthy mine owner and shares his fortune with Miss Jane Coombs, the “broad, heavy, rugged, middle-aged” gentlewoman of Aguilar.

Lola presents Jane with Tesuque,
the Rain God.

I liked A Prairie Infanta for two things: the characterisation of Jane with her dignified demeanour and the town of Aguilar with its coalmines, adobe church, dirt streets and deep gorges, tall cottonwoods, mud-houses, goat-corrals, and Mexican children. The short novel is also a western story because it is set in a mining town many of whose inhabitants depend on prospecting to become wealthy. The mysterious Eva Wilder Brodhead, whose The Eternal Feminine is also set in Colorado, has written a good story really well. 

Source for A Prairie Infanta: Project Gutenberg

10 comments:

  1. An author that is completely new to me - thanks Prashant. Admittedly I'm not one much for historical fiction or even westerns but once I get an e-reader I may very well indulge! Cheers.

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    1. Sergio, Eva Wilder Brodhead was new to me as well. I just happened to come across her short novel and read it in one go. I read a fair amount of historical fiction though I don't get the time to write about it here. There're always exceptions to the rule, such as this one.

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    1. Patti, thanks very much. I liked the story and the writer's narrative style. Surprisingly, there's almost nothing about Eva Wilder Brodhead on the internet. Perhaps, I'm not looking in the right places.

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  3. Sounds like the character study is the heart of this one.

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    1. Charles, absolutely. A PRAIRIE INFANTA is a character study of Miss Jane Coombs, the protagonist, and Brodhead gets under the skin of her noble character.

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  4. Not familiar at all with this author, Prashant. You always manage to come up with writers who will stymie me. I do, occasionally, read westerns. I'll keep this in mind.

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    1. Yvette, I read all kinds of stuff including mining camp-town stories like these, though this short novel is not exactly a western. For me the charm of these stories and novels lies in the period they are set in and getting to know something about the people and the culture of that era. All in all, a good read.

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  5. Nicely reviewed, Prashant. I found this about the author online:

    http://tinyurl.com/9r9sebn

    The book is identified as juvenile fiction, of which there was a lot produced by book publishers in that era.

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    1. Ron, thanks for the appreciation and the link to the author. I checked it out. There are many writers like Brodhead about whom there is next to nothing on the internet. Copyright-free ebooks have brought many such authors in the public limelight.

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