Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Letters from Yellowstone

Letters from Yellowstone

4.7 26
by Diane Smith

See All Formats & Editions

In the spring of 1898, A. E. (Alexandria) Bartram--a spirited young woman with a love for botany--is invited to join a field study in Yellowstone National Park. The study's leader, a mild-mannered professor from Montana, assumes she is a man, and is less than pleased to discover the truth. Once the scientists overcome the shock of having a woman on their team, they


In the spring of 1898, A. E. (Alexandria) Bartram--a spirited young woman with a love for botany--is invited to join a field study in Yellowstone National Park. The study's leader, a mild-mannered professor from Montana, assumes she is a man, and is less than pleased to discover the truth. Once the scientists overcome the shock of having a woman on their team, they forge ahead on a summer of adventure, forming an enlightening web of relationships as they move from Mammoth Hot Springs to a camp high in the backcountry. But as they make their way collecting amid Yellowstone's beauty the group is splintered by differing views on science, nature, and economics. In the tradition of A. S. Byatt's Angels and Insects and Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever, this delightful novel captures an ever-fascinating era and one woman's attempt to take charge of her life.

Editorial Reviews

Barbara Nordby
The real beauty of this book, the lively way it intertwines the summertime landscapes and wildlife of Yellowstone National Park with the wonder and challenges visitors faced there in 1898, is accomplished through its epistolary form. The majority of the letters, all feeling true to period language, are penned by medical student Alex Bartram, who relies on her endearingly sarcastic wit and strict, scientific methods to prove her capabilities in a male-dominated field. Through their letters to colleagues and family, all the members of the wildlife-cataloging project reveal rich opinions of their successes and failures with both their work and the other Yellowstone inhabitants.

Alex learns through these strangers' guidance as she struggles to find independence from a world where her rock-climbing, male-bonding behavior is embarrassingly unladylike. She establishes a religious belief in nature's order during this unique period of growth in both United States history and a woman's life.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the spring of 1898, the Smithsonian Institution organized an expedition for botanical research in Wyoming's Yellowstone Park. First-time novelist Smith, an environmental and science writer, follows amateur botanist A.E. Bartram's summer as the lone woman in that party of male professionals, telling her story through detailed letters (and the occasional Western Union telegram). When Cornell student Bartram arrives in the camp, she receives a cool reception from expedition leader H.G. Merriam, who expected "A.E." to be a man. As the botanists strive to get along and gather flora unique to the Rocky Mountain area, they encounter the U.S. Cavalry and Native Americans. Disturbed by Professor Merriam's inventive, sometimes nonscientific methods, Dr. Philip Aber of the Smithsonian visits the park to inspect and perhaps close down the project. The troubled Dr. Aber finally wanders off unguided into one of Yellowstone's scalding thermal springs; his death adds to the party's web of tensions. As life in Yellowstone changes her, Miss Bartram must deal with her stiff-necked Cornell mentor, Professor Lester King, whose "black-and-white" thinking she finally comes to reject. Miss Bartram lights up the novel with her admirable intelligence, wit and honest desire to learn from everyone, but Smith wisely prevents her epistles from overwhelming the other characters' voices. Instead, the collage of letters and telegrams produces a Rashomon effect--the same actions are viewed from many perspectives with no one narrator dominant. Serenely attentive, deliberately paced, as careful with psychology and history as it is with its botany, Smith's epistolary narrative makes a worthy addition to the expanding category of history-of-science novels. Author tour. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
This epistolary novel charmingly achieves its modest goals. The letter-writers are members of a pioneering group of naturalists who spend the summer of 1898 discovering, studying, and drawing the flora and fauna of the new national park. Only the mildest of conflicts give the novel its momentum—should the scientists use the traditional folk names of plants or only the binomial Latinate forms? Are the Native Americans dependable sources of information about medicinal plants? Will the U.S. military be able to sidetrack plans to bring a railroad line into the park? The central character is Alex Bartram, who is revealed to the flustered leader of the expedition as a woman (Alexandria) only after she arrives at Mammoth Hot Springs in late May. The place of women in the field and in science itself forms a central theme in the book. Since the novel was first published in 1999, the reader can be assured that Miss Bartram conducts herself flawlessly and proves herself essential to the ultimate success of the summer's work. It's no accident that she is a descendent of the greatest family of naturalists in American history. Pleasant and unassuming, Letters from Yellowstone manages to entertain us with an appealing set of characters—including a talking raven—and inform us about the hazards and pleasures of scientific fieldwork. Teachers of biology and ecology might take note. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Penguin, 226p, 21cm, 99-12904, $12.95. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Michael P. Healy; English Teacher, Wood River H.S., Hailey, ID January 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 1)
Library Journal
Smith has done a fine job with her first novel. Using the anonymity of correspondence, young A.E. (Alexandria) Bartram, a medical student and avid botanist, procures a spot on a Smithsonian-sponsored expedition to Yellowstone National Park in the summer of 1898. After the initial confusion over her gender and abilities subsides, Alex is accepted as part of a team that includes a mild-mannered professor, an inebriated agriculturist, a seldom-seen entomologist, a Chinese cook, a Crow Indian family, and a series of benefactors. As the weeks pass, Alex finds herself "committed to both illustrating as well as collecting" the flora and fauna of the park. Told entirely in letters, the book offers abundant detail and a mannered style that perfectly capture the attitudes and atmosphere of the era. Display this title next to A.S. Byatt's Angels and Insects and Annie Dillards's The Living. Recommended for all fiction collections.--Charlotte L. Glover, Ketchikan P.L., AK Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A colorful and credible first novel, by science/environment writer Smith, takes an epistolary approach to a tale of a budding young naturalist who's invited to join a Smithsonian-backed expedition to Yellowstone in the summer of 1898, but who first has to overcome the dismay of her colleagues when they discover their naturalist is a woman. Although the initial correspondence between A.E. Bartram and the expedition leader, Montana college professor Merriam, is cordial and professional, the first sight of Alex (short for Alexandria) after she arrives in Yellowstone gives rise to a different dynamic. The mild-mannered, bespectacled Merriam hems and haws about what to do with her. Then, knowing how desperately shorthanded his expedition is, he decides to let her come along—secretly hoping she'll soon call it quits herself. Alex quickly proves her competence, with a degree of scientific rigor easily exceeding Merriam's own, yet her independence precipitates the team's first crisis: she goes in search of specimens one day without telling anyone where she's headed, so that when a spring snowstorm envelops them all, Merriam goes to her rescue. Then, however, he tumbles off a cliff and needs her to keep him alive. Other trials involve another member of the team, a brandy-soused meteorologist who prefers the park's hotels to the outdoors, and Alex's mentor and fiancé, a Cornell biology professor, who is sent by the young woman's parents to Montana to bring her home. The fiancé, unable to adjust to Alex's new free-spirited behavior, soon goes back east alone, and Alex finds herself changing even more, confronted with Merriam's broader view of science and his obvious respectfor the herbal knowledge of his Crow Indian assistant. A warm, satisfying story. Despite repetition from overlapping correspondence and rather conventional plot twists, the magic of a Yellowstone summer shimmers here enticingly.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A. E. Bartram
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York
March 10, 1898

Prof. H. G. Merriam
The Agricultural College
of the State of Montana
Bozeman, Montana

Dear Professor,

    Dr. Philip Aber of the Smithsonian made a presentation on campus last week in which he discussed your planned field study in Yellowstone National Park. Although I have studied medicine during my tenure here, I prefer the study of botany over anything else. I have a personal collection of over 5,000 specimens, some of which I inherited from a distant relative on my father's side, and have worked extensively on classification. For the last three years I have summered in Philadelphia studying the Lewis expedition, and have initiated an illustrated documentation of their collection, specializing in the Rocky Mountain species, e.g., Lupinus argenteus, Linum Lewisii, Clarkia pulchella, and, of course, Lewisia rediviva.

    I have found this work to be immensely satisfying, but it has, of necessity, focused on studying species out of place and time. I am indebted, as we all are, to the earliest collectors, but am equally interested in exploring the complexities of plant life in their natural environs, and contributing to a scientific understanding of the plant kingdom. I am young, single, and without any engagement to confine me here. With your expressed interest, I could reach Montana by May 15; May 30 at the latest. Please advise at your earliest convenience as I am most anxious to make plans.


    A. E. Bartram

Howard Merriam, Ph.D.
The Agricultural College
of the State of Montana
Bozeman, Mont.
April 2, 1898

A. E. Bartram
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

Dear Dr. Bartram,

    Your letter arrived at a most fortuitous time. I am indeed planning a scientific expedition into the Yellowstone. My goal is threefold: to study Rocky Mountain specimens in their native setting and to initiate a collection of those specimens for a research herbarium I wish to establish here at Montana College. Based on this work, I plan to prepare a complete enumeration of Yellowstone and other Montana species.

    As you may know, aside from Coulter's preliminary work, little has been done to systematically collect, classify, and analyze the plant life of the northern Rocky Mountains, and much must be done if we are to better understand the region and its potential. I have selected the Nation's Park as a starting point for my investigations because it shelters a diversity of virtually undiscovered plant life in what could very well be the last uniquely wild place in America. But that will not last, given the tourism promotion of the U.S. government and its railroad friends. Sadly, the situation throughout the West is much the same. Agriculture may be the future of this region, but it will destroy the land as we know it. Needless to say, there is much to be done and very little time before a wealth of native species is lost to us forever.

    We will establish a camp of operations at Mammoth on or about May 1, weather permitting. I suggest you plan to meet us there as soon as possible after that date. You are welcome to pursue your own interests in plant life and the environment. I ask only that you contribute to both the Montana and Smithsonian Institution's research collections, and provide me with a copy of your field notes.

    Although the high-mountain country around the Park warms slowly (and this has been an unusually severe winter), I plan to start my work in the areas around Mammoth Hot Springs and other geothermal activity so we should not be too delayed. Having collected extensively around the hotpots of Northern California while a graduate student at Berkeley, I look forward to comparing the species in these northern climes.

    You, too, may find this unusual environment of interest. Thanks to a federal program of road construction, the Park is rapidly becoming overrun with tourists and other travellers—they say more than 10,000 last year alone!—but I think you will find that most of the natural systems and wildlife which have evolved in concert with the geothermal areas, and which can add to an appreciation of plant life in this region, are still firmly in place. I do not know the Park well, but I assume you will also find ample opportunity to investigate the bitterroot in all its unusual stages of development—if not in Mammoth and environs then in the higher backcountry once weather and other conditions improve.

    I notice that in your letter you did not call out the Lewis monkeyflower. Perhaps a specimen did not survive the multiple owners and travels back and forth between Europe that the Lewis collection reportedly made before finding its permanent home in Philadelphia. You may wish to refer to Pursh's illustrated Flora for additional information. The monkeyflower is, if I may say so, a lovely specimen. To encounter it at 9,000 feet is to share in some of the adventure of that first great American naturalist as he reached the elusive headwaters of the Missouri. Those compact petals and almost sensuous corolla lobes lilting along the creekbeds must have been as joyful a sight then as they are now. As you can tell, I, too, am devoted to the work of Meriwether Lewis and look forward to learning more about your studies.

    Dr. Bartram, before closing I fear I must be perfectly frank with you. Although you appeal for no commitment, I would be remiss to ask you to travel such a great distance without some word about your prospects once you are here. I can reimburse you, of course, for your travel to and from Montana. I can, naturally, provide for your room and board in the field. I can also offer a small stipend, but only upon successful completion of the work, and only if the expedition proceeds as scheduled. Since you are a collector yourself, you know the financial and other hazards that await us in the field. Please understand that I cannot afford to finance any unexpected expenditures out of my own pocket. Such expenses must come from my very limited expedition funds. I had hoped to be joined by my colleagues here at the college, which would have cost me little, but due to a marriage, a death, and a trip to our nation's capital, those plans have not been realized. Thus, I find myself embarrassingly short of funds to adequately support and reward your participation.

    Additionally, although there will be much classification to be accomplished during the fall and winter months, I cannot guarantee a position to you upon completion of our field work. Although I have great plans to establish a botanical research herbarium, these plans are not shared by the college president, who believes the study of botany is somehow in conflict with the educational and agricultural missions of the college. That agriculture is the growing of plants and that botany is the systematic study of those plants seems to have escaped him altogether. He is, you must understand, an historian, and as such more interested in building monuments named after the dead (dead naturalists at that!) than exposing students to living, breathing science in the here and now. But I digress.

    I do hope you will consider my offer. If, under the circumstances, you feel that you are unable to do so, I will understand completely and will continue to hold you in the highest regard for your expressed interest in my work.

    I remain,

yours most humbly,

Howard Merriam, Ph.D.

    p.s. I cannot help but remark upon your name. If you are indeed a member of that prestigious family of botany, I can only say how pleased I would be to have you join our group, and I pledge to do my utmost to find an appropriate position for you here at the college. If not, be assured that the offer still stands. HGM

* * *



* * *

Howard Merriam
Bozeman, Mont.
April 19, 1898

Dear Mother,

    You said you were praying for me. Well, your prayers have been answered. I have just heard from a medical student and young botanist at Cornell University who is willing to join the expedition, and will do so with little or no financial commitment on my part. And, he is a Bartram at that!

    I may have told you that Miller bailed out. Too many commitments he says, now that he is married. It was a disappointment, but fortunately my work does not depend on a cartographer. That aspect of the Park has been fairly well documented by the government by now. But Gleick has been making similar rumblings, and now informs me that he is off to Washington for a month. I think his reservations are more related to the increasing severity of the president's highwaymen reports than to any time commitment at the Smithsonian. Gleick lost a friend to some sort of holdup when they were surveying for the railroad, and I do not think he has ever recovered. His lack of interest is a real loss for me. Gleick is a surgeon by training, a crack shot, and he knows the land. Besides, he believes in the value of science and is the only true ally I have on campus.

    There is Peacock, of course, but he will disappear into his private world of beetles once we reach the Park. The only thing I can count on from him will be the o-too!!," "can't act," "nothing great—but nice face," "great looking but awful reading: too bad," "heavy in legs," "big in fanny," "not strong enough," "not outstanding," "not for us," "a little too worldly," "pregnant."

    Mike McLean had seen hundreds of young actresses and Bob and Saul had interviewed several, but their Liesl still had not been found. The six other children had already been cast, as had Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, and they were already in rehearsal. So Bob and Saul were at a point where they had to find the actress for the part. Saul fought hard for me: "Let's give her a try."

    Bob Wise finally agreed that Saul could give me a screen test to see how my eyes looked. But a soundstage wouldn't be available for my test for two weeks. Saul hired me without a contract, telling me I was temporarily Liesl and warning me that I wouldn't be permanently cast unless I passed the screen test two weeks down the road.

    Despite this caveat, I was thrilled. I quit my job at the doctor's office that very afternoon and the next morning drove to the Fox lot, fresh and exuberant. Even though I only had the job conditionally, I was excited. I had a job as an actress in a movie!

    Whether or not I would ultimately become Liesl, however, hinged not on how well I could sing or dance or act, but on how my blue eyes would look on film. Life is like that sometimes—determined by things you can't control, like who your new governess turns out to be, or the color of your eyes. All we can do is look straight into the lens and let fate lead us where it will.

Meet the Author

Diane Smith has worked for the last fifteen years as a writer specializing in science and the environment. Her first novel, Letters from Yellowstone, was the winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Fiction Prize and was nominated in the fiction category for the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Book Awards.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Letters from Yellowstone 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book transports the reader to 1898 and to Yellowstone, when travel was a luxury. I've been to this wonderful park in the 60's as a child and again in the 90's on my honeymoon. This book brings it to life. I truly enjoyed how the author wove fact and fiction to create a story. The characters are interesting and vivid and it leaves you wanting to read their personal journals to discover more about them and what becomes of them after they leave Yellowstone. You find yourself involved and part of the expedition. That Ms. Smith uses the actual latin names for plants and animals without translation is a bit disconcerting as it leaves one guessing as to what is actually being seen. But what struck me the most was the realization of just how much society has lost by the disappearance of the art of letter writing. How elegant, stylish and descriptive the written word use to be....we have lost so much in this age of 'quick communication technology'. Great book, wonderful summer read especially if you are unable to take a vacation. Let this book take you back in time to a place that still exists today.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Its just a question if so i kinda like you but im engaged but his nook broke i just heard now im alone i got no one right now" hugs you
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Name: Em Age:4 sex: female fur: black with white Eyes: multicolored Family: Fang is he guardian. Bio: fang found her when she was a a new born. He did what he could to care for her amd protect her anyway possible. She thinls he is he dad. FANG wants to find a pack for them
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Name: Akira | Gender: &female | Colors: she is a grayish-blue with a white face, chest, and stomach | Age: 18 seasons Mate: none | Pups: none | History: its looonnggg so please ask if you want to know
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Name: Jett Gender: Male Coloration: Azure coat with a light green underbelly and brown eyes Family: None Mate: None Offspring: None Behavior: Quiet and docile, enjoys long naps, and standing his ground when he is in danger Special powers/abilities/skills: Quick and agile and knows how to use dragon shouts (Skyrim) Breif history: After lousing his parents in a rockslide he wandered Skyrim and while watching dragon battles he learned how to use dragon shouts, andhis extensive knowledge of the landscape make him a exceptional scout and traveller Very open to any questions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have blond hair with pink highlights ad blue eyes i know how to use a katana and dont ever mess with me or ill break ur face anything else just ask
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hi...um...you said you didnt have a mate? I dont have a mate. Mee t me on reault 7 if you exepet my offer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Name moonlight looks all black a crecnet moon on my musle. Gender female eyes golden looks like their glowing reson pups got killed by the alpha and i got kicked out of the last pack. Im looking for a new pack to start out fresh. Mate is dead got hunted. Only one pup got kicked out with me. We got sepertated by humans. Thats all any questions just ask me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Go to res 1 and read post titled To all
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Name: Bijorn <br>Age: 2 <br>Gender: She <br>Rank: Packwolf, for now. <p>Looks: Bijorn is a pure white wolf with emerald green eyes. Bijorn's fur is very thick yet sleek at the same time. She has a tribal band tied around her left leg just below the elbow joint. Her legs are long and her frame is agile, making her slightly taller than the average wolf. <br>Persona: Bijorn has a calming aura about her and she seems very wise for her age. She is also intelligent, cunning, peaceful,loyal, brave, protective but don't mistake her kindest for weakness. Never underestimate any wolf. Bijorn is very friendly and loves adventure, loves to help and make herself useful. <br>Background: Bijorn was raised by an Indian tribe as a pup, they found her motherless amd only a few weeks old. The Indians practically worshipped her and in return she kept them safe from any harm. As Bijorn grew older, she longed to be wild and they respected her company so much they set her free to roam the wild. She made her way here after a little less than a year, she kept the band made for her in remembrance of her old friends. <p>Mate: None <br>Pups: None <br>Kin: None
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Looks-Russet fur, amber eyes, has black paws and ears.......Personality- Looks rough and tough but is very gentle......Backstory: was former female alpha but quit after bad things happened in her pack. Ask her about it......Anything else just ask.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
|| NAME &star This lovely young she-wolf is known by Nali. || <p> || GENDER &star She is a she-wolf. A girl? || <p> || AGE &star Quite young, around a year and a half? Maybe two years, it's hard for a wolf to remember their age. || <p> || RANK &star She is nothing but an ordinary packwolf, others usually see her as a soft, gentle spirit. Which is true, in a sense. She's only hostile when protecting her family, friends, or pack. Because that's what is important to her. And she wants to defend it. Being a leader would be a good rank for her, but she's happy serving her pack in any way. || <p> || PERSONALITY &star Nali is quite humble, only being hostile when she sees fit. She is also quite protective and loving to pups an younger wolves, hoping to be a great mother someday. Among other things she is very approachable, so don't be afraid to say hi! || <p> || APPERANCE &star She is a soft ginger colored wolf, with medium length fluffy hair. Her legs are quite long and she has a slender build. Nali's eyes are a leafy green with gold specks, framed by long dark lashes that complement her coat color. Her ears are a little bit longer than the normal wolf's along with the fact that her tail is actually quite long and fluffy, genetic traits fom her mother's side. She was half wolf. Which makes Nali 1/4 wolf. Quite unusual to see in a pack. || <p> || CRUSH &star Don't bother, she may have one, but she isn't ready for a mate. || <p> || THEME SONG &star Me and My Broken Heart by Rixton ||
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
((Name)) Nebula ((Rank)) Pack wolf wants to be beta or deta ((Description)) Redish brown she wolf with a swirl patern on her chest ((Age)) Young wolf ((Pesonaloty)) Calm but if you get on her nerves she gets mad, smart ((History)) Lived near a waterfall but was kick out because of her patern.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Gender is female. Looks: snow white with blue eyes. I am very pretty take one look and you'll want me but it depends on personality. I am sassy at times but dont get on my nerves im also funny smart cute and romantic. Ask me anything ill answer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im female and i have pure black fur with hazel eyes and im very pretty im always in the shadows i have no mate or pups and dont even ask about my history
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Name: Demon........ Age: doesnt matter but very old for his species.............. Apearence: blood red fur with black stripes on his back like claw marks............. Personallity: angry and anti-social.............. Histiry: dont bring it up............... Other: dont asks either
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Yellowstone pack is HORRIBLE. No one has good grammar, nobody knows anyone, and no one even knows the ranks. This pack by far the worst ever.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Name: jacob lykos age: 14 discription: white american teenager brown hair green eyes human
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ice:pelt color is snowy white her eyes are the color if ice her peronity can be loving caring and also is bossy sometimes and get to kniw her <p `winter pelt color white eye color dark blue personality caring loving nice her sister is stubborn very stubborn
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Name&bull;Winter&bull;Gender&bull;Female&bull;Appearance&bull;White wolf with frosty blue eyes and very faint light gray specks.&bull;Crush&bull;Secret&bull;Mate/Pups&bull;Desceaded and expecting&bull;History&bull;Her pup Hurricane killed her she pup Dawn and her mate Cloud when she went out and got stuck in the blizzrd.&bull;Personality&bull;Kind and protective when it comes to pup&bull;
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Blaze: she is dark foggy with faded white paws and green eyes calm dosnt like tude wolves happy playfully and stubborn XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX Forest A dark brown wolf with one one black spot,on his paw and ear green eyes Funny playing adveterous but can be mean
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Name. Buck Gender. Male Fir. a sort of rusty color Charater traits. Brave, cunning, stong, protective, trustworthy, loyal, kind, charming. Mate. None Rank. ??? Kin. Shadow...shadowy color looks nothing like the shadow's bio here in the bio result.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Redtalon sniffed the air suspiciously. 'Fireflame must be near', he thought excitedly a he breathed in the familier scent of his foe. Redtalon excitedly paced quickly through the forest. His tail held high in alert. The loner stopped as he sensed a pair of eyes settle down on his back. Redtalon turned around and saw Fireflame slithering by with Retalon's powerful stone tucked carefully between his chin and neck. Careful not to make a sound he scamped swifltly and silently by Redtalon. Redtalon ducked down and soared gracefully at Fireflame and knocked him over.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago