Alborn: ‘Hope And Hardship: Pioneer Voices from Kansas Territory’ Worth the Read
– September 15, 2013 8:00 am
I’ve known Linda Johnston for a few years. She is a local naturalist, hiker, kayaker, and occasional environmental activist. I only recently found out that she is also a researcher and author.
Linda is the author of Hope And Hardship: Pioneer Voices from Kansas Territory.
I was intrigued, so I bought the book. I also was a bit intimidated, because I’m not really a fan of history books. Linda shared that, “I wanted to make history attractive ordinary people who wouldn’t read a history book”. That would include me. To my surprise, I discovered Johnston writes history that I actually enjoyed reading.
I don’t do “book reviews.” That being said, Johnston’s book tells a compelling story with lessons in history that are really applicable to today. Sometimes, it is worth browsing how we got here to understand where we are, and recognizing how little things have changed.
This is no trivial work. Johnston spent 25 years researching the pioneers who settled in Kansas Territory almost 160 years ago. Her source material was, diaries, letters, newspaper articles, and other artifacts of the times. I can only imagine what it must have been like sitting amongst years of index cards, notes, musings, and clippings trying to “connect the dots” into a cohesive document of the times.
Johnston pulled that off.
The backdrop for the stories Johnston shares is the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This allowed the residents of Kansas to vote upon admission to the union as to whether it would be a free or slave state. Immigrants poured in to Kansas from the North and South attempting to create the numbers to decide the outcome. These were passionate, and occasionally violent times.
Yet, life goes on.
I browsed the Wikipedia to see what it had to say about Kansas, and got a superficial discussion of this issue. Hope And Hardship: Pioneer Voices from Kansas Territory gets past the historical Cliff notes, and actually focuses on the daily lives, trials, and challenges that settlers faced moving away from family, friends and perhaps a more secure community to a Territory that is the focus of a national conversation over the future of slavery.
A bit about the book. Its organized around the four seasons. Each season provides a “snapshot” of activity such as immigration (a special issue thanks to the Kansas-Nebraska Act). the natural world (I particularly enjoyed the wild flowers), Entertainment, the Sabbath, and personal pursuits. Each season closes with a letter or article that shares some particular thoughts on Kansas.
Folks in Kansas focused on the same issues that we all focus on today: Religion and Education. They enjoyed the same things we enjoy today: an occasional party, nature, food, politics, and life.
Something unique about this book is that it contains the writings of both men and women, given two perspectives of the times. Letters were particularly important. Linda documents that a trip to the post office to mail a letter or see of one is waiting for you could take a day. Communication between friends and family left behind was obviously important to these early Kansas pioneers.
These letters put a heart and soul into the History of Kansas in a way that engages those who would otherwise pass on tales from the past. There are weddings, funerals, parties, fights, and the triviality of daily life documented by hand by pioneers who thought that perhaps some day others might be interested. Thanks to Johnston, her research, and her book, those words have come to life fulfilling the hopes of those who wrote them.
Johnston’s book has been well received by the public. In our interview, it became obvious that she recognized the last 25 years provided a roadmap and perhaps a template for future projects.
Johnston is contemplating another book following the same structure. She shared, “I recognize this is a repeatable process.” Johnston is considering Virginia as her next project.
Johnston also recognized the value of journaling, and its historical importance to really understand the lives and times of our ancestors. She also understands that our ancestors might be interested in our lives.
Johnston is actively engaged developing Journaling Workshops for Young People, and investigating other ways to document our lives and culture.
As I sit here on my front porch writing this book review on my MacBook Pro, I realize that perhaps those of us who write columns, blog, have websites, or post on social media are perhaps the modern version of those early pioneers. I just hope there is a Linda Johnston out there in 150 years or so to prevent our musings from becoming only the temporary ramblings of otherwise anonymous authors of our era.