Read Anything Good Lately?


Vanished Arizona: Recollections of the Army Life of a New England Woman

I borrowed this cover photo from Amazon today to introduce you to a delightful book I happened to read last week. If you live in Wisconsin or Florida or Guam, you might wonder why I’m recommending a book that has specific relevance to Arizona on this blog, but the appeal of Vanished Arizona is much wider than one state, despite the book’s age.

The author, Martha Summerhayes, grew up in New England in the late 1800s, where she received an excellent education, topped off by a year on the Continent with family friends. The father in her German host family was a soldier himself; her admiration for the military and the military life prospered in that fertile atmosphere. In fact, it grew so much that when she returned home, she married “my friend, Jack,” an Army second Lieutenant who had seen service in the Civil War. During all her married life, she kept journals, from which she drew this book in later years. And Martha was a dandy writer–fresh, vivid and amusing.

In the 1870’s, she went with Jack to serve on the frontier in several military posts, primarily in Arizona. She talks about life on these isolated stations and her experiences, about her husband and his work, about her neighbors and their foibles. Throughout the journal , her lively voice makes the reader chuckle aloud at times, and at times feel very sorry for the hardships she endured.

My favorite story from the book describes a memorable evening in the Summerhayes household, when the desert heat reached record-breaking levels, and the only way they could possibly sleep in their quarters was to open their unscreened first floor bedroom window. Coyotes and  wildcats filled the Western night with their hunting cries, and poor Eastern Martha  got more and more nervous as their calls seemed to come closer. She asked her husband if they had anything to worry about from the animals, and of course, he said “no” (husbands obviously have not changed substantially since the 1870s–Jeff would say the same thing). He’d barely gotten the words out of his mouth when a wildcat leaped through the open window, ran across them in the bed, and hid behind the sofa in the living room. Martha recounts that her husband cried, “Jerusalem!” grabbed his sword, and ran to the living room, where he rooted around under the sofa with it. The terrified cat decided it had made an inhospitable choice of lodging, ran back into the bedroom, galloped once again across the bed, and over the poor frightened woman on its way back to freedom via the open window!

Martha didn’t immediately fall in love with the Arizona Territory. Responsible household help could rarely be hired,  the heat scorched them relentlessly, and she had to depend upon the wives of the other officers to help her learn to cook, sew, and raise her children under tough conditions. But she never flagged in her admiration for the military, she loved her handsome, dashing husband, whom she called “my hero,” and she worked faithfully to advance his career. She loved adventure, loved the hot Southwestern food, admired the native people of the area, and eventually came to love the territory itself. She wrote daily, used every possible opportunity to speak her beloved second language, German, and spoke her mind frankly about all sorts of matters. Martha Summerhayes must have been a lot of fun. Both she and her husband formed life-long friends during his years of service.

I’m telling you about this little book because sometimes, we think people of the past are sufficiently different from us that we have nothing to say to one another. But you’d like Martha’s story–and while you certainly can order the book from Amazon, you can also download it from Project Gutenberg at no charge. My preferred genre to read is mystery, but sometimes I take a chance on something really different. This one was great fun for me.

What have you been reading lately?



4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by barbahrah on January 13, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    I’m reading : “Bringing up BeBe: One American mother discovers the wisdom of French Parenting”. Very interesting! Your book sounds pretty interesting too! 🙂 Barb


  2. That sounds fascinating! I wonder what the differences are between French and American parents!


  3. Posted by Karen Hager Ombrello on January 13, 2013 at 6:43 pm

    Well, I’m reading THE ELEGANT GATHERING OFWHITE SNOWS by Kris Radish. It is a story of friendship involving eight women and takes place in rural Wisconsin…… I’m only 80 pages into it, but so far it’s interesting…..
    I’ll look up this one you found…..It sounds like one I’d enjoy.
    Have you ever read Mrs. Mike and the sequel to it is The Search for Joyful. Excellent!!

    Mary, I saw in The Mining Journal on line, that John VandeZande’s son just won a literary award for his book…..but I don’t remember the title, etc. I know he was doing poetry according to previous articles about him……hmm, I’ll have to look back to find the article again.

    Did I ever tell you about my great Aunt Ann who taught in Gallup, NM and other places when still territories (early 1900s)? She also taught English and piano in the Panama Canal when it was first opened and that was where she met Uncle Bill (military there) who was from Missouri? She retired from teaching in Calif. & collected retirement for 49 years — dying (in 1999) at 106! She & Grand Dad Christenson who died at 102 — (in 1956) saw so much in a span of 150 years between the two of them. I’ll be 66 on the 21st and I can’t imagine 40 more years is possible, but you never know!!
    With that regard, how was your 40th?


  4. Karen–Thanks for your comments. No, I didn’t know about your aunt, or didn’t remember, which seems to be happening more often these days 🙂 What a fascinating life she must have had–and how brave she must have needed to be.

    Thanks for the book recommendations. I volunteer at our local library here in Holbrook and I’m always looking for good things to read. They’re quite current, so I see lots of good things go by!

    I remembered often as a teacher myself how John VandeZande managed to be so patient with us as undergraduates. I went to him with all my questions–I took “advisor” a lot more literally than I was meant to. And he always had some sort of answer. I wonder how he got any writing done himself!

    We had all four children and six grandchildren with us for the anniversary–first time in ten years–great fun.


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