American Pioneer Life in the Midwest : Review of My Name is Esther Clara

American pioneer life during the years of homesteading has its own unique history.

Dandelion Books is grateful for author, poet and blogger, Eileen R. Tabios for permission to reprint her review of Dandelion author, Laurel Johnson's biography of her grandmother’s American pioneer life, My Name Is Esther Clara.

American pioneer life Esther

For the past year, I have been reading -- devouring -- all sorts of books (novels, memoirs, reportage, even “Christian romances”) as long as they contained details about developing the Midwest or the Western U.S. in the early years of U.S.-American history.

My favorite subtopic has revolved around homesteading -- I was/am interested in how people settle in previously near barren landscapes, how they craft a home from such situations; my interest continues through to the early parts of the 20th century.

So I was primed to be interested in My Name Is Esther Clara


Labors of Love

Here, the poet has crafted a biography of her grandmother, Esther Clara, who was born in 1898 and died in 1989.

With the help of audiotapes and videotapes of her grandmother telling stories of her life that moves across rural Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, Johnson inhabits her grandmother’s mind to create a memoir structured from a first-person basis.

Well, it is a satisfying, page-turning read.

It offers interesting details about homesteading, with topics ranging over raising animals for food instead of pets to one-room country schools to building houses (including tent-houses) from scratch to the making of lye soap.

I particularly enjoyed this treatise on lard which evoked my father during his recovery from triple bypass surgery; while recovering he had asked my mother, “Do you think the fact that I used to eat pure pig fat as a child hurt my heart?” Dad was joking, of course, as he knew the answer.

Here’s an excerpt from Johnson’s book on American pioneer life:

Rendering lard was another of my favorite jobs. It took a bit of skill to do it properly so the lard would turn out hard and pure.

On lard rendering day, Ma gathered up cast iron pans and kettles and every female on the place had to help. She built a slow fire in the cook stove and set the pans and kettles around the top, as many as the stove would hold.

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