Monday, June 13, 2016

Calvary Life in Tent and Field by Mrs. Orsemus Bronson Boyd

Published:  1894
My Experience:  Fascinated and Amused and Impressed
Synopsis:  The first person account of life as an officer’s wife in the years 1868 to 1885.  From New York to California,  Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and back again, her view is domestic, with special attention to the lot of the wife and family of a soldier on the frontier.

The Preface begins oddly, a defense of her husband as a young man that struck me as a bit, well, unusual.  Don’t we generally tell the best of our lifetime then briefly shrug off the troubles of youth with a footnote or addendum?  However, I read it through since the tone was so very earnest and the adjectives used moderately.  By the end of the Preface, my sympathies were not only engaged, so was my interest.

I was captured by her brevity of descriptions detailing her journey from New York to California by ship, then overland by stagecoach and army ambulance (not because she was injured but because it was the only way for a “lady” that didn’t ride to travel) to her bridal home.  Her prose is clipped with tight wording, broad allusions and sprinkled with her opinions - always labeled as such and most generally backed up by some incident or anecdote that shows her in a less than favorable light.

Her intrepid adventures with canvas tents that catch fire regularly, the rain, mud and insects while confessing she is no cook and a worse laundress was wonderfully honest.  I’ve read enough fiction (even labeled otherwise) of brides off to the frontier that stepped lively over the bodewash and sprang forth an accomplished woman without a scratch to her person or dinner burned to her name.  For all that, she is a woman of her time, with certain prejudices and expectations and most of them end up on their ear or irrelevant.  Her optimism and patient commitment to her family wins - every single time.

The account does *not* spare the US Army in the least.  When it was published I’m sure there were a few cleared throats and flushed faces from the Generals and Congressional Potentates.  I hope so anyway!  Some reform in the manner of how dependents are treated has finally reached our present day military, but I suspect many would read this and nod, even sigh, because the *benefits* are probably not so far advanced as civilians believe.  And yet, even as she raises these issues, she shrugs them aside because she loves her husband; just as firmly believes in her duty to him as he believes in his duty to his/ our country.  Her complaints are on paper, after the fact, or commiserating with other women in the same situation; otherwise, she carries on with the best attitude possible.

Though she told how eerie it was to live with nothing but canvas between her ears and camp life, it was the sounds of punishments and wounded that distressed her, not the fact she was living in a tent.  Journeying from post to post is described in detail with the hardships so obvious she doesn’t need to beat the horse to death.  Being expected to adapt to military life, to make the best of conditions most men would grumble about and still mind the children while keeping up with the troops was interesting to read. I did laugh in several places, imagining Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne making due half so well.  The brief story of the new bride’s quarters in an overcrowded post being nothing more than a hallway between two families was priceless.

Mrs. Boyd’s love for and interest in the frontier surrounding her comes through with each chapter.  She is enchanted with the scenery, honest about the weather, and hates cacti, earnestly, even as she points out its nutritional value.  I liked how she focused on the broader details, slipping in examples, without compromising the privacy of her marriage, self or children.  The narration was true to the times, her personal integrity as well as being an amusing quirk.

For example, she always referred to her husband as Mr. Boyd.  She demonstrated the same respect to other officers, their wives always being brides or gentle wives.  Extended family was identified by relationship and location they lived.  Her children were baby, then son, and another son, as they grew it was daughter and eldest son, youngest son.  There were no agonized accounts of childbirth, no re-created dialog of marital happiness OR discord.  True, it was published nine years after the fact, recalling at times, twenty-six years previous, but some memories of life never fade, especially the best and worst surrounding marriage and children.  That she drew a modest boundary around those things made her story more endearing, not less.  There were still enough details and anecdotes to get her point across and make this worth the read.

Most readers skip the Appendix.  In this book the temptation to close it and not realize there are two would be understandable.  However … I dare suggest you read them both.  The first is an official determination regarding what she shared in the Preface. I admit after reading her story, I felt her courage in exposing this before beginning instead of tucking it all in an appendix was remarkable.

The second Appendix is a copy of the lecture given by Mr. Boyd, not the Decoration Day Address, but the lecture he was repeatedly asked to give.  It is a bit of a tall tale, but his witness of life on the frontier, the conflict of civilization with native culture, and all he learned from this comes through.  He was a bit of a monologue-r but I suspect he touched more than a few with his imagery and perhaps, helped them to make more sense of what was happening Out There, on the frontier as well as right under their noses.

Mr. Boyd is this shadowy figure of bravery and honor, worthy of her devotion and all hardships. It isn’t till the Appendix that he speaks for himself.  I believe that is the highest accolade a wife can give:  The last word.

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