WHEN MONTANA AND I WERE YOUNG: A Frontier Childhood

Margaret Bell, Author, Mary Clearman Blew, Editor, Lee Rostad, Afterword by , edited and intro. by Mary Clearman Blew. Univ. of Nebraska $24.95 (251p) ISBN 978-0-8032-1325-8

Born in 1888 to a hotel waitress and a cowboy gambler, Bell, who died in 1982, spent most of her hard life in Montana and Canada, ranching, horse breaking and writing. Her memoir, discovered and edited by University of Idaho English professor Blew, ranges from childhood through her late teens and offers readers a rare look at a woman's pioneer life on the prairie. Other women, including 20th-century Judy Blunt (Breaking Clean), have adjusted the bucolic myth of frontier fortitude by detailing the starvation, disease and discrimination they endured, but Bell describes an even harder core of misery. After her mother died, the eight-year-old Bell's "childhood chastity" was violated by her uncle and, regularly, her stepfather. Unable to explain the problem to the few adults who might have helped, the increasingly isolated Bell soon attempted suicide, but succeeded only in losing the beloved sister who joined her out of sympathy. The cruelty of her home life is echoed in Bell's descriptions of the unforgiving land. Stories of abuse are sandwiched between haunting accounts of breaking wild horses and herding stray cattle, struggling through the wild prairie shoeless in her stepfather's old socks, her mangled clothing frozen to her body. Yet as difficult as Bell's childhood was, she tells her story with understated sangfroid. She practiced self-reliance and stoicism from an early age, and her memoir never lapses into self-pity. This powerful account belongs on the shelf of every student of pioneer history or women's history. (Mar. 15)

Forecast:Unlike Blunt's similarly themed book from Knopf (Forecasts, Nov. 19), this title doesn't have a big house pouring lots of promo into it. But handselling to women's studies buffs, historians and even cowgirls could help sales.

Reviewed on: 01/07/2002
Release date: 03/01/2002
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