The U.S. National Park Service is celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year, which would usually have very little impact on my life as I am a) not American and b) not planning to travel to any American National Park any time soon. But, to celebrate the anniversary, PBS decided to reair Ken Burns’ magnificent documentary series on the National Parks earlier this spring, which made for fascinating and deeply informative viewing over a weekend when I was otherwise immobilized with a head cold. It inspired me to search out a novel I vaguely remembered reading a few times during my high school years, about scientists conducting a field study in Yellowstone National Park in the late 19th Century. Except I couldn’t remember the title. Or the author’s name. But at least I remembered what the covered looked like! After some diligent searching, I tracked it down.
Letters from Yellowstone by Diane Smith is an epistolary novel (an all too rare kind of novel, as far as I’m concerned) about a group of scientists who spend the summer of 1898 working in Yellowstone Park in Montana. Lead by Howard Merriam, a quiet young professor from the state’s agricultural college, the team consists of a drunken meteorologist, a Crow Indian assistant, a Chinese cook, a single-minded entomologist who prefers to live on his own in the back country, and a young medical student from back east whose passion is botany. A medical student, who, to the surprise of Professor Merriam, turns out to be a young woman.
A.E. Bartram, also known as Alex, formally Alexandra, wants nothing more than to spend the summer studying the plant species native to the park and having the kind of adventure her hero, Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark), had on his journey west. The park’s wild and unearthly landscape enthralls her, as do the long, active days spent in the outdoors doing work she loves. A determine young woman who, having pursued a medical degree, is used to being treated with an infuriating combination of resentment and kid gloves by her male colleagues, Alex makes it clear she has no intention of being dismissed just because Professor Merriam never thought to verify her gender. So down to work they get.
The summer is a busy and satisfying one. There is lots of work to do but on top of that there are visitors – both welcome and unwelcome – to deal with, minor injuries that pose a more serious problem in the isolated park, academic rivalries that put the study’s funding in jeopardy, conflicting views on what the role of man should be in the wild park, and, perhaps, a friendship that could grow into something more.
I remember enjoying this book when I read it before (and I have read it a few times) but was still surprised by how satisfying I found it. I loved Smith’s rounded approach to the story: it is as much a book about the park and man’s relationship with wild places as it is about any of the characters. But the characters are very engaging and Smith does a wonderful job with the epistolary structure. Knowing that your characters are never revealing all of themselves, always holding a little back as they write to friends, family members, and colleagues, adds a delicious tension as you read between the lines.
I was certainly more able to appreciate Smith’s incorporation of historical details and historical figures with Ken Burns’ documentary fresh in my mind than on previous readings. This time around, I knew about the cavalry’s role in policing the parks; the eviction of the natives who had lived there; the “Wonderland” marketing campaign by the railroad; the visitors who came for extraordinary scenery and hotel society; and the visitors who came to find themselves in the wilderness. It is a wonderful testament to the spirit of the park and to the enthusiasm of the people who created and loved it, while still acknowledging the damage they brought and the conflicts they created.