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Homesteads and Hamlet Traps
June 4, 1919
Great Falls, Montana
You will never guess what I am posting in the mail besides this letter to you: my last check to Mr. Nefzger! After these long months, Uncle Chester’s IOU is paid in full. When first presented with that IOU some months ago, I couldn’t imagine how on earth I would repay it. Especially after that summer hailstorm knocked down my crops along with my hopes of making a go of the farm. The good Lord has quite a sense of humor, plunking me down here in Great Falls, in just the sort of job I left Iowa to escape, though I must confess, it was pure pleasure this past winter to have indoor plumbing. No more walking to the necessary when it’s forty below! And I’ve certainly perfected essential cleaning skills. I’ll have you know that I can now make a bed, scour the washbowl, and Hoover-sweep the carpet in a lodger’s room in fifteen minutes flat.
Despite the glamour of my current position, I am counting the minutes until the next thing. What is that, you ask? I do not know. You are right, as always, that the sensible plan is to come to you in Seattle. Of course, I would love to be neighbors again, as we were on the Montana prairie. But you know I am not prone to the sensible. What sensible girl would have said yes to spending a year under Montana’s big sky, trying to make a go of a long-lost uncle’s homestead claim?
And what sensible girl wouldn’t say yes to Charlie, who is quite convinced we are meant to grow old together? Only a fool would deflect his attentions. Well, I saw such a fool in the mirror this morning.
It’s not that Charlie wouldn’t be easy to look at for the next fifty years. Aside from your Karl, I can’t think of another man so solid, kind, and true-blue. What is it that I want, one may wonder, if not to be Mrs. Charlie Hawley? That’s as much a mystery to me as Uncle Chester’s past. But I feel strongly that Hattie Here-and-There must change her life before she can change her name.
I still puzzle over Uncle Chester, God rest his soul, calling himself a scoundrel. Perhaps this world needs more such scoundrels. Without him, I never would have had the chance to test myself on the homestead, to breathe in the promises carried on a prairie breeze, or to fill my heart with so many friends, among whom I count you the dearest.
Mrs. Brown is hollering for me. She is in a perfect dither over the acting troupe soon to arrive. The Venturing Varietals are sure to be livelier boarders than our usual Fuller Brush salesmen.
Hattie Inez Brooks
The floor began to vibrate beneath my feet. Mrs. Brown had progressed from hollering to pounding the ceiling below with the broom handle. Evidently, the workday had begun. I set the letter to Perilee aside, tied my apron on, and went to find my employer.
She was in the kitchen, kneading bread dough. I was not to be trusted with this particular task. Despite Perilee’s expert tutelage, I never managed to bake a loaf of bread any lighter than a flatiron.
Mrs. Brown clapped floury hands together. “Busy now! I want things spotless when the actors arrive. Spotless!” She slapped the dough for emphasis.
Taking stock of what yet needed to be done, I dragged a rug outside, threw it across the clothesline, and began to beat it clean.
As I swung the rug-beater back and forth, my thoughts back-and-forthed, too, settling first on a snippet from Charlie’s last letter:
I should be grateful to be home. And I am, don’t mistake me. Too many families lost their sons in that war. It’s hard to explain what I feel. The best I can come up with is that it’s like trying to pitch without a baseball. Something’s missing. And I think you know what that something is.
I shook my head. Why couldn’t I be more like other girls my age? Take Mrs. Brown’s niece. She spent her every waking hour sizing up this beau or that, stitching tea towels and petticoats and putting aside a little each month for a set of Spode Buttercup dishes.
Perhaps I’d have been the same way had it not been for Uncle Chester leaving me the homestead in his will. Last year, working to prove up, I had been more than Hattie Here-and-There, the orphan girl with too many temporary homes. I had been Hattie Big Sky, carving out a place to belong. Like so many others who’d been drawn to Montana’s prairie, I was not successful. And losing the farm was not the worst of my losses. It was nothing compared to losing Mattie.
I stopped my exertions and swiped at my eyes, suddenly thankful for this dusty job. Should anyone come upon me, I could blame it for my damp eyes, not memories of Mattie. The influenza had cut a wide swath of death through this country, but that one loss cut an even wider swath through my heart.
After a moment, I resumed the rhythmic slapping of beater on rug, another thought moving to the forefront of my mind. For all its challenges and sorrows, my time on the homestead had given me a taste of what it might be like to stake out my own claim on life, and had left me craving more.
After a while, I carted the last rug into the house, smoothing it back in its place on the floor. Windows were next. I lugged buckets and rags upstairs, catching my reflection in the glass in the Daisy room. Guilt was stamped all over my face. For good reason: I had been less than forthcoming with Perilee, my truest friend, in my letter to her. I did know what I wanted to do. Six long lonely months here in Great Falls had provided ample time to piece together new hopes.
Those Honyocker’s Homilies I’d written from the homestead for the Arlington News back in Iowa were the first fleas to bite. Then I began to read the assorted newspapers our lodgers left behind, discovering articles written by female reporters like muckraker Ida Tarbell. And Nellie Bly, who earned her first assignment at eighteen, just a year older than me.
I could not yet confess it to anyone, not even Perilee, but I had thrown a lasso around a dream even bigger than a Montana farm.
I wanted to be a reporter.
Even though I was about as worldly as Rooster Jim’s hens, I did know that a mild talent and a few pieces published in a small-town paper were not sufficient. Women like Nellie Bly did Grand Things; that was how they got to be real writers. Despite its name, Great Falls was hardly the place to do something grand.
Neither was Arlington, Iowa. And even though my heart approved of Charlie’s plan for an “us,” my mind feared that saying yes to him was saying no to myself. I needed to find my own place in the world. My own true place.
And something in me believed that place was connected to the working end of a pen, not a plow. And certainly not a polishing cloth! Every night, after I was done for the day at Mrs. Brown’s, I’d been scribbling away in children’s composition books--the cheapest I could find at the five-and-dime. I copied down inspiring words and snippets of poems, but mostly I used those pages to practice being a reporter.
The first article in my book was about Mrs. Brown’s neighbor Sam Blessing, who had the brains of a chicken. No, that was an insult to chickens. In a fit of pique at his wife, Sam had shut himself in the shed out back. The shed that locked from the outside. Equally piqued, his wife had not been inclined to unlock the door. It took some serious horse trading on his part to coax her to wield the key and let him out. The bargain they’d struck was reflected in the headline I’d written: “Mrs. Sam Blessing’s Mother to Visit Great Falls for Three Months.”
I was also partial to the piece I’d written about Mrs. Maynard’s dog, Blue. Mrs. Maynard would send Blue, by himself, to the grocer’s with her shopping list and market basket, and he would return with the requested provisions, carrying the basket handle in his mouth. “Course, I don’t send him after cream,” she’d told me, “lest it would be butter by the time he trotted it home.”
I’d written about the children’s story times at the public library and the Sons of Norway parade, and had even tried my hand at writing a review of the last movie I’d seen at the Gem.
It was all in secret. Not a soul knew about my efforts. Had I tried, I might have been able to get one or two of my stories published in the Great Falls Tribune.
I paused in midscrub of a window, vinegar water dripping down my arm. Might have. But shopping dogs and stubborn men are hardly topics to occupy a real reporter’s time.
My thoughts were interrupted by voices below. Many voices. Melodious voices. The Varietals had arrived!
I finished the window, ditched bucket and rags, and hurried downstairs. Several people, bearing an inordinate amount of luggage, were crowded into the front hall. A young dandy with Brylcreemed hair struck a pose by the coat tree. An ingénue with pouty lips fussed with the hem of her jacket. An older actress wore an overcoat of midnight-blue wool that tapered to an impossibly thin waist before ending a fashionable four inches above her shoe tops. She caught me gawking and I was rewarded with a queenly nod.
Their leader, Mr. Lancaster, stroked his waxed goatee as he parleyed terms with Mrs. Brown. “We have a train to catch on Saturday,” he said.
“Only three nights?” Mrs. Brown’s voice registered disappointment.
“Regrettably, that is the case.” Mr. Lancaster bowed to Mrs. Brown, reached for her hand, and planted a kiss there. “Such is the life of the wandering performer. Now, would you be so kind as to show us to our rooms?”
I headed to the kitchen to start noon dinner as Mrs. Brown settled everyone to rights. The door soon swung open and the Brylcreem man popped his head in. “Might I trouble you for directions to a tobacconist’s?” His smile was straight from an advertisement for Pepsodent toothpaste, it was that white. “I myself do not indulge. But Miss Clare is convinced that Milo cigarettes help relax her vocal cords.”
I gave him directions; for which my reward was another glittering smile.
He had barely exited the room when one of the young women of the troupe slipped in.
“Tobacconist’s?” I asked, anticipating her question.
“What?” She looked puzzled.
“Sorry. That young man with the white smile was just here, asking for directions. I assumed you might need them, too.”
“Cecil?” Her cheeks flushed pink. “I mean, Mr. Hall?”
I started in on a stack of spuds that needed peeling. “I hope I didn’t sound rude. Can I help you?”
“I noticed the clothesline out back. Might I hang some of the costumes for tonight’s performance out to air? You can’t imagine how”--she waggled her eyebrows--“aromatic they get with all those wearings.”
“The neighbors will appreciate the change of scenery,” I said. “Much more interesting than Mrs. Brown’s bloomers.”
She laughed. “I can imagine.”
I showed her to the bucket of clothespins and she went after the costumes, hanging them out to air.
“Oh, you’re making scalloped potatoes,” she said, passing back through the kitchen when she’d finished. “My favorite.”
I took stock of her. There was none of the oiliness that I’d felt from Mr. Hall. And she looked to be about my age. I introduced myself. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“Oh, I’d love one.” She sat at the table. “I’m Sylvia. The world’s worst wardrobe mistress, according to her nibs in there.” She took the coffee I offered but shook her head at sugar and cream.
“I thought this job would be so exciting.” Sylvia rolled her eyes. “ ‘Wardrobe mistress’ is only a fancy term for chief laundress and mender. And all the travel. After this, we’re off to San Francisco.” Elbows on the table, she rested her chin on her hands, wearing a decidedly glum expression.
Imagine feeling blue about going somewhere like San Francisco. Think of the doings in such a place! A person could write news stories there till her arm fell off. “Why do you keep with it?” I asked, sprinkling flour over the top of the potatoes in the baking dish.
She glanced around, then ducked her head close to mine. “Cecil,” she whispered.
I wrinkled my forehead, trying to think. See sill? What? Then it hit me. “You mean Mr. Hall?”
Sylvia put her finger to her lips. “Our secret, promise?”
“Cross my heart.”
“You’re a peach.” She gave me a friendly wink. “The coffee hit the spot. Thanks. Back to the salt mines.”
She paused with her hand on the swinging door. “Say. Would you like to come to the show tomorrow night? I can get you a ticket. On the house.”
A live vaudeville show. I’d never seen one before. And for free! “That’s kind of you. I’d love it.”
“It will be quite the performance.” She flashed a mysterious smile. “One you won’t want to miss.”
Thanks to Sylvia’s generosity, the next night I found myself in a plush maroon seat in the tenth row, center section, of the Grand Opera House. I held the printed program in gloved hands. Out of loyalty to my benefactor, the first thing I did was look for Cecil Hall’s name. There it was, in minuscule print, near the bottom of the last page. Taking up most of the program were the names of Ellington Lancaster--“Founder and Principal, Venturing Varietals” and “Marquis of the Footlights”--and Vera Clare, who was not only “Empress of Emotion” but also “Queen of the Varietal Stage.”
My neighbor was a chatty woman whose hat would’ve been better suited to someone with a face less like a pumpkin. She pointed to Cecil’s name on the program. “I saw him in Helena,” she confided. “He plays a magician that makes himself disappear.” Her eyes twinkled. “My nephew told me how it’s done. It’s called a Hamlet trap. They rig up this door in the stage floor. The actor steps on it just so and poof ! Gone.” She sighed. “I come all this way to see him again.”
The burgundy velvet curtain began to rise, earning me a poke in the ribs from my neighbor. For a plump woman, she had sharp bones. “Show’s starting,” she stage-whispered.
What People are Saying About This
Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2012:
“Readers will fall for this earnest, wide-eyed and strong-minded young woman… Historical fiction with heart.”
Booklist, February 1, 2013:
"One of the best parts about this is the way Larson brings San Francisco, circa 1919, alive—especially the opportunities and stumbling blocks for women...Fans of the first book will be thrilled to see the ups and downs of Hattie’s romance with old boyfriend Charlie, while her relationship with another fellow leads to an interesting twist. This is reminiscent of Maude Hart Lovelace’s later Betsy books, whose heroine also wanted to write. And that’s high praise."