While researching my western romance novel, Chasing the Dead, set in New Mexico, I came across an article about a wonderful author by the name of Mary Austin (who lived quite some time ago). Austin was born Sept. 9, 1868 in Carlinville, Ill. She was a novelist and an essayist who wrote about Native American culture and social problems.
Austin was an unusual child from the beginning, chafing at the rigid strictures of mid-western culture. She was observant, whip-smart, willful, and outspoken. But to her mother, she was distinctly unfeminine, homely, and not quick enough to please others. (For these offenses, her mother thought she was unfit for marriage.) Much of her life, Austin swung between her insecurities—born of her mother’s criticism and feeling as if she didn’t fit in—and her confidence in her own capacity to write with insight and originality, which some perceived as an unbecoming ego. Yet, despite these insecurities, she had a beautiful writing voice and took up the causes of the downtrodden (Particularly Native American people).
Unlike most women of her day, Austin traveled boldly across open country, often alone. She spirited through expanses of yucca, along dry riverbeds, and into the forests of the Sierra Nevada. She made friends with Spanish shepherds, Mexican and Chinese immigrants, miners, Shoshones, and Paiutes. She took rides from strangers to unknown destinations, claiming a freedom that, at the time, for a woman, was considered brazen at best.
Mary Austin learned to love the desert and the Native Americans who lived in it, and both figured in the sketches that constituted her first book, The Land of Little Rain (1903), which was a great and immediate success. It was followed by a collection of stories, The Basket Woman (1904), a romantic novel, Isidro (1905), and a collection of regional sketches, The Flock (1906).
Here's a snippet from her book: The Land of Little Rain (beautiful):
“There are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermilion painted, aspiring to the snow line. A land of lost rivers, with little in it to love; yet a land that once visited must be come back to inevitably. If it were not so there would be little told of it.”
Published in 1903, the book is a collection of intimate vignettes of the desert’s land and people that helped establish the allure of an often-maligned ecosystem—and, more broadly, of the West itself.
Austin’s best writing, which is concerned with nature or Native American life, is reminiscent of the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir in its transcendental tone and occasional primitivist leaning. She was active in movements to preserve Native American arts, crafts, and culture.
Austin died August 13, 1934, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Mount Mary Austin, in the Sierra Nevada, was named in her honor. It is located 8.5 miles west of her longtime home in Independence, California. Her biography was published in 1939. After Austin died of a heart attack, the photographer Ansel Adams wrote of her influence. “Seldom have I met and known anyone of such intellectual and spiritual power and discipline,” said Adams, who collaborated with Austin on a book about Taos Pueblo. “She is a ‘future’ person—one who will a century from now appear as a writer of major stature in the complex matrix of American culture.”
The Austins' home in Independence, California, became a historical landmark.
The 19th-Century Writer Who Braved the Desert Alone -
If you'd like to read The Land of Little Rain (click on title)
I hope you enjoyed reading about an author from days past. I especially love articles about women who not only wrote about the Wild West, but traveled it.
Stay well everyone,