Letters from Yellowstone

( 34 )


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 ...

See more details below
Paperback (Reissue)
BN.com price
(Save 12%)$16.00 List Price

Pick Up In Store

Reserve and pick up in 60 minutes at your local store

Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (102) from $1.99   
  • New (8) from $8.82   
  • Used (94) from $1.99   
Letters from Yellowstone

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
BN.com price


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.

Read More Show Less

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.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140291810
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/28/2000
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 349,590
  • Product dimensions: 5.28 (w) x 7.95 (h) x 0.54 (d)

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.

Read More Show Less

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.

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide


It is the spring of 1898, and Cornell medical student Alexandria Bartram is on her way to the wilds of Montana to pursue her life's passion—botany. Bright and independent-minded, Alex has found that despite her family's hopes for her medical career, she is more interested in plants than in patients. The previous March, she heard about a Smithsonian-sponsored summer field study in Yellowstone National Park and immediately wrote to the trip organizer, Professor Howard Merriam. He accepted her proposal, and Alex anticipates an edifying summer.

What Alex doesn't know is that Merriam's expedition is riddled with problems. "I have put together the barest bones of an expedition," the professor writes to a friend. There is little project funding, still less support from the president of Merriam's college, and two key members of the field party have bailed out at the last minute. The professor, a quiet intellectual who readily admits to weak "people skills" ("I barely get along with my colleagues, let alone understand their true natures," he writes to his mother), is now faced with a small, makeshift field party that consists of an eccentric entomologist, an alcoholic agriculturist, two student interns, and a driver with an attitude problem. On top of all this, Merriam thinks that his Cornell medical student, whom he has never met, and who signs her letters "A. E. Bartram," is a man.

These profound misperceptions form the basis of Diane Smith's unique and warmhearted novel about naturalists and nature at the turn of the century. The story is told entirely through correspondence—an unusual style for a late-twentieth-century novel, but a common one in the nineteenth century, when letters and the telegraph were the most vital forms of personal communication. Smith's elegantly crafted writing bestows each character with a distinctive voice, and through a wide variety of interactions—from Alex and Merriam's debates over scientific methods to Rutherford's determined attempts to teach his pet raven to talk—readers gain insight into the novel's many disparate characters. In their letters to friends, family, and colleagues, Alex, Merriam, and the others describe events from contrasting perspectives, a kaleidoscopic effect that unites the fragments of multiple viewpoints into a multifaceted whole.

The relationship between parts and the whole is crucial to the development of the novel, which begins with a group of strong-minded strangers—each with his or her own separate purpose—who are forced into a partnership that proves more fruitful than any of their personal goals. As the field study progresses through the summer, botanical discoveries, snowstorms, sabotage, and a pivotal Fourth of July celebration are among the many events that compel the group members to cooperate and eventually lose their preconceived ideas about each other.

Throughout the novel, the characters' letters touch on pressing issues of the era, many of which are still with us today, from conservation to Native American displacement to feminism. The story is also a coming-of-age novel, not only for Alex, but for Merriam and the others as well, as they confront their fears and conquer them or, in a few tragic cases, are conquered by them. Brimming with humor, excitement, and the romance of the Yellowstone landscape, Smith's enlightening novel shimmers with discoveries—both human and scientific—that beckon the dawn of a new century.


Diane Smith has lived most of her adult life and a few years of her childhood in Montana, with only brief interruptions to live in San Francisco and London. She studied western and environmental history at the University of Montana, and now specializes in science writing, with an emphasis on public understanding of science and the reform of science education. She also does some travel writing, which often integrates her interests in history and the environment. In her free time, she visits the national parks, volunteers on archaeological and paleontological digs, explores the back roads of Montana, and tries to learn all she can about the natural history of the West.


What made you decide to write your novel completely in the form of correspondence? What were the challenges and rewards of writing in this format? Would you do it again?

I originally opened Letters from Yellowstone with a traditional narrative, following Professor Merriam as he prepares for the expedition and ending the first chapter with the arrival of the letter from Miss Bartram. However, once I wrote that letter, it was clear that the book was coming to life in a way that the preceding 50 or so pages simply had failed to do. I was also interested in investigating the characters' various perspectives on the science of nature—and the nature of science. The letter format allowed the characters to express his or her point of view—as well as their consternation with the beliefs of their colleagues. And yes, I am integrating some letters into my next novel, but since Professor Merriam and his party have been invited back, I hope to revisit the Park with them again sometime in the future. I assume if I write such a book it would once again be told entirely in the form of letters.

Do you maintain correspondences via letters today? Many people see parallels between the e-mail correspondences of this decade and the relationships that blossomed through the epistolary correspondences of the past. How do you feel about this?

I have to respectfully disagree that communicating electronically is the same as corresponding by mail. Although writing down your thoughts and beliefs and experiences can be revealing to oneself and to others regardless of the medium, I view electronic mail simply as a fast and convenient way to transfer information and data asynchronously. I am a regular user, preferring it to the telephone in most cases because it is so nonintrusive and efficient for getting things done. But electronic mail is not what I would call a reflective medium. We've become so conditioned to having information on demand that, I believe, many of us have lost the simple joy of anticipating the arrival of a letter, and the leisure to consider our reply. And yes, for the last year, I have benefited from such an antiquated correspondence, which I have found to be immensely rewarding. I feel fortunate indeed to have a friend who is even more atavistic than I am when it comes to letter writing.

How did your background in science and the environment help inform your approach to the novel?

Certainly the characters in Letters from Yellowstone reflect many of the experiences I have had working in science and engineering, although the specifics of the novel are entirely imagined. My interaction with scientists and mathematicians also provided me with the confidence to teach myself new disciplines, and to open my eyes to the natural world in much the way the characters in the book open themselves to Yellowstone National Park and its environs. I think it's important to point out that I have no training as a scientist. I believe all of us can, and should, develop a very basic understanding and appreciation of science and mathematics. At their heart, both are exquisitely simple and elegant if you can get past the scientific jargon. On the other hand, in the natural world in particular, botanical and other scientific nomenclature can help enrich our understanding. So I agree in general with the statement widely attributed to Linnaeus (although apparently first written by Isidore of Seville) that who knoweth not the names, knoweth not the subject. I guess in the end, I'm sympathetic with both Professor Merriam's and Miss Bartram's points of view.

The novel touches on many late-nineteenth-century political and cultural concerns such as the growth of the railroad, conservation concerns, and Native American issues. How did you research these issues?

I studied nineteenth-century western and environmental history in graduate school, and to this day have a keen interest in the subject, having read and enjoyed a wide variety of historians from Frederick Jackson Turner to contemporary feminists. Aubrey Haines wrote a two-volume history of Yellowstone Park, which helped inform some of the issues debated in the book, while other details were drawn from the many excellent books written by Park archivist Lee H. Whittlesey. In addition, there are a number of great books on the late-nineteenth-century environmentalist movement and on the interpretation of nature; the one which comes to mind first is The Nature Fakers: Wildlife, Science and Sentiment by Ralph Lutts. This one covers a slightly later period of time, but is still relevant to the issues of my book. And I will always be deeply indebted to Vine Deloria, whose work questioning the traditional assumptions of science and academia has helped me see the world in new ways.

What made you choose early botanical research in a U.S. national park as the topic for your first novel?

On an unrelated project, working in the special collections library at Montana State University-Bozeman, I discovered photographs of Teddy Roosevelt and John Burroughs in Yellowstone National Park. To this day those images stay with me and, based on seeing those, I started reading about the history of the Park. The Hayden expedition was of particular interest to me. Around the same time, a writer friend suggested botany as a topic, since it was one of the few scientific fields in which women were accepted during the Victorian age. A Hayden-like expedition in the Park seemed a natural extension of those two seemingly disparate ideas and interests.

Andrew Rutherford grows from a blustery curmudgeon to an interesting and sympathetic character during the course of the novel. Did you plan his development from the outset or did he take on a life of his own as you wrote?

I have heard writers say this happens, but I never really believed it until I started writing about Andrew Rutherford, Ph.D. I always envisioned him as being sympathetic by the end of the book, but my initial vision of him was nothing like the character he grew into over the course of writing about that summer in the Park.

Who is your favorite character in the novel? Why?

That's a difficult question, since I feel a certain affinity with all of them—with the possible exception of the mountain man driver. I think I relate best to Miss Bartram and Professor Merriam, but the so-called minor characters—Rutherford, Miss Zwinger, Mrs. Eversman, and even Peacock—never failed to amaze me when I was writing about them. Clearly, I was quite fond of Rutherford's bird, having once been amazed myself by a turkey-gobbling raven in the Park.

What are you working on now?

I am currently at work on another novel tentatively entitled Evolution. It, too, uses a unique format to relay the story and is set in the Montana Territories in the late 1800s.


  • Did you like reading a story told completely through correspondence? What were the benefits? The drawbacks?
  • One of the ways we learn about Alex Bartram is by paying attention to the different ways that she writes to different people, such as her parents, her friend Jess, and her colleague Lester. What do we learn about Alex in this way? What can we learn about the other characters from the tone and content of their letters?
  • The epistolary format of this novel means that there is no objective narration: all events are described through the point of view of a particular character. How does this characteristic affect how we experience the novel?
  • A number of telegrams are interspersed among the letters in this novel. How do these affect the pace of the novel?
  • Each of the main characters in this novel is distinctive. Which did you like the best, and why? Which did you dislike, and why? Did you identify with any of the characters?
  • Throughout the novel, Professor Merriam and Alex argue over whether, in academic study, plants should be called by their Latin names or by their familiar names. (For instance, Alex is horrified that Merriam refers to the "Mimulus Lewisii" as the "monkeyflower.") What does this argument tell us about the two characters' personalities?
  • At the Lake Hotel Fourth of July celebration, Miss Zwinger tells Alex, "Do not travel down a dead-end road, Miss Bartram, unless you are absolutely convinced that you will be content with the road's destination." What does Miss Zwinger mean? How does her advice affect Alex's future actions?
  • What insights about women's place in society at the turn of the century do the female characters in this novel reveal? What different perspectives do Alex, Miss Zwinger, Mrs. Eversman, and Sarah provide?
  • Smith has divided her novel into five sections, each of which carries the Latin name for a plant as its title. What is the significance of the titles, and the section breaks? How do they affect our experience of the novel?
  • How is the novel's plot affected by controversial political and social issues that stirred the American West in the late nineteenth century? Are any of these issues still relevant today?
  • Toward the end of the novel, Professor Merriam declares that "the world is filled with such wonder and uncertainty. . . . If we can bring some order to it through science or even religion or myth, all of our lives can be equally full of wonder." How does his view contrast with the other characters', especially Alex's? How does his statement relate to the larger themes of the novel?
  • On page 194, in a letter to her friend Jess, Alex describes in detail the moment when her photograph is taken on the last day of the field study. Later, on page 215, while holding the group picture drawn by Joseph and Sarah, Alex remarks to Merriam, "Isn't it strange, Professor, how as scientists we become so focused on what is close at hand, that we often miss the real picture?" What is the connection between these two scenes? What does Alex mean by her statement to Merriam?
  • Whether they know it or not, a romance is blossoming between Alex and Professor Merriam throughout the course of the novel. At what point does Merriam start thinking of Alex in terms that aren't purely professional? When does Alex start doing the same, and why?
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 34 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 34 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2000

    A wonderful summer read

    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.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2014

    Silvershadows bio

    Gender-male type-timberwolf weight-120 lbs appearance-liquid silver eyes. Sexy jet black coat History-came here from alaska Companion-raven that i grew up with and are best friends Mate-none now but has a huge crush on Tempo

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 24, 2014


    "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

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 15, 2014


    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

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2014


    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

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2014

    Jett's bio

    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2014

    Night wolfs bio

    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

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2014

    To Jett From Cheesepuff AKACheese

    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2014

    Moonlight's bio

    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2014


    Sorry its res 2 bios and res 1 camp.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 24, 2014


    Hugs back. I do have a crush.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2014


    Go to res 1 and read post titled To all

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2014

    Bijorn's Bio

    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

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 11, 2014


    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2014

    Day's Bio

    Age:2 years<p>
    Looks:Dark red with in contrast to his blue eyes. He has a dark black and lumpy burn mark half covered in fur [is part of his history.]<p>
    Personality:He is caring and kind but every once in a while his dominance side will appear.<p>
    Crush:Nali (I trust you with this information)<p>
    Mate:None yet<p>
    Pups:None yet<>
    History:He was once in MacMoon Pack as a Delta. He has been a drifter for a while and now hes here. End of story. You are a special person if he willingly told you the rest of his story about his injury<p>

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2014

    &star nali's biography &star

    || 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 ||

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 4, 2014

    Nebulas bio


    Pack wolf wants to be beta or deta

    Redish brown she wolf with a swirl patern on her chest

    Young wolf

    Calm but if you get on her nerves she gets mad, smart

    Lived near a waterfall but was kick out because of her patern.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2014


    A female wolf that has sleek silvery bluish fur and icy blue eyes. She is a very strong wolf, and at such a young age. She has a wonderful howling voice and hunts for the clan. A very loyal packmate, she is a discplined, caring, and kind wolf. Tempo has no mate but does hold a crush.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2014


    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2014


    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

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 34 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)