Bess, by Charles Cranston Jett ISBN 9781478764861
Five out of five stars
Bess Parker grew up on a farm in North Dakota in the late nineteenth century and like all farm children, was expected to do her share of the work. Her father worked in the local grain elevator, so he was elsewhere, meaning that Bess had to run the farm, starting at an early age. Unlike other girls, she was not attracted to boys and had no desire to get married and raise a family after graduating from high school.
Bess was also very intelligent, strong-willed and curious about the world. She devoured books in the local library, being especially curious about geography. When she learned about the Homestead program where any person 21 and over could file for ownership of 160 acres of unclaimed land, Bess decided that was what she was going to do. Even though it was considered unusual, there was no legal impediment against a woman claiming a homestead. It required that a person develop the land and after five years, if she did that the land would officially become hers.
Bess travels to the small town of Haley, North Dakota and establishes her homestead just across the border in South Dakota right after the turn of the century. Industrious and resourceful, Bess hires men to help her build a house partially made of sod, outbuildings for livestock and the fences needed to contain them.
Eventually, even though she never develops an attraction for men, Bess succumbs to the charms of a man nicknamed Doc, although he is not a medical man. He raises horses, a profession that he loves. They have children and their farm is prosperous, expanded when other homesteaders with property contiguous to theirs give up on farming and move elsewhere.
While this is a story about a hardy pioneer woman, there are many twists not found in others. There is a clear trail of lesbianism, a lack of deference to male opinions and Bess even smokes. Another positive aspect of the story is that Bess is accepted for what she is by the other people in the community. There is no hint of mean-spirited gossip by other members of their local society, they accept her as a hard-working productive member.
Growing up on a farm, Bess learned how to use firearms, so she knows how to react when threatened by man and beast. Even though most of the women engaged in the westward movement traveled with their husbands and families, there were some that went out on their own, determined to make it in a man’s world. This book brings their story to light, although it is fiction, it contains a great deal of historical accuracy.