Y for Letters from Yellowstone, by Diane Smith (fiction)

Hidden in alpine valleys are tiny treasures.
Alex intends to find them, to sketch them, to preserve them.
Who knows what wonders are waiting in Yellowstone?

It’s a man’s world in science in the 1890s, but Alexandria Bartram doesn’t care. Her family is sure that she will go into medicine, but her heart is all for botany. Studying Lewisia flowers brought back from the wilderness of Yellowstone makes her eager to see them in their native habitat, so she requests a place on the summer field study team there. If Dr. Merriam thinks that A.E. Bartram is a man, then he’s the one that’s short-sighted.

Like the tough and tender Lewisia itself, Alex finds a way to survive and thrive under harsh conditions, an able researcher and methodical scientist, with an eye for all the beauties of this great national park.

Historical fiction which helps readers see the past more clearly can also help us preserve what’s important for our future. When we visited Yellowstone this summer, I could see areas which Alex would immediately recognize and others which tourism had irrevocably changed.

Yes, the copyright date of 2000 is correct; this charming book is still in print, so check for it at your local library or independent bookstore.

Book info: Letters From Yellowstone / Diane Smith. Penguin, 2000. [author’s website] [publisher site]

My Recommendation: Alexandria wants to study mountain plants in their natural setting, so she signs on with a Yellowstone research team. But it’s 1898, and the lead scientist thinks that Dr. A.E. Bartram is a man.

Dr. Merriam is quite startled to find that his new colleague arriving from Cornell is female – how will a young woman endure the hardships of rough camp life, he worries. Railroads have just reached the borders of America’s largest national park, so most travel is by wagon and on horseback. Alex has no concerns and is ready for adventure; when a respectable widow arrives on a bicycle tour and remains with the group as an amateur photographer, her chaperonage satisfies everyone.

Each member of the expedition has a different view of its purpose: Alex wants to catalog every variation of the Lewisia plant, Dr. Merriam needs to secure specimens of many plants and animals for the new Smithsonian Institution in the nation’s capital, Dr. Rutherford thinks he can teach a raven to talk as he studies Yellowstone’s avian life, and their wagon driver wants to stay far, far away from Alex and other females.

The story of the summer’s successes and failures is told through letters and telegrams.
Dr. Rutherford is trying to convince the president of his Montana college to expand the botany department, Dr. Merriam reminds the Smithsonian Institution of their promises to fund the expedition and quietly complains to his mother about the problems that beset them at every turn, Alex relates her discoveries to fellow researchers back East, glorying in Yellowstone’s amazing landscapes of geysers and alpine meadows.

Will Dr. Merriam get the full-time position at the Smithsonian? Will Native American conflicts prevent the team from completing their mission? Can Alex continue her field research when summer is over, or will she be stranded in a college classroom forever?

With summer snows and campsites ranging from woeful to wonderful, this novel takes readers back to an age of discoveries, when the idea of wilderness preservation was still new. (One of 5,000 books recommended on www.abookandahug.com) Review copy and cover image courtesy of the publisher.

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