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Friday, April 22, 2011

The Lieutenant's Lady by Bess Streeter Alrich

The Lieutenant's Lady
by Bess Streeter Aldrich
Originally published 1942 by D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc.
Edition read: 1987 Bison Book
ISBN 0-8032-5914-x


This is the second novel that I've read by Nebraska author Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954). The first was one that I've read several times, A Lantern in her Hand, the novel for which Aldrich is best known. Although she was a very popular writer in her day, I first heard about Aldrich as a grad student while attending the English Department at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln in the early 1990s.

Last summer I won a copy of The Lieutenant's Lady from the blog Frisbee: A Book Journal and read it shortly after finally visiting Aldrich's house for the first time last month.  (I wrote a blog post about the visit that you can read here.)

The Lieutenant's Lady is about a young woman, Linnie, from the East who's visiting relatives in Omaha in the late 1860s shortly after Nebraska gains statehood. Omaha is booming, the Civil War is over, and the US Army has turned its attention to making the western lands safe for white settlement. After a not very pleasant visit with her know-it-all-money-and-business-obsessed uncle, her invalid aunt, and shallow cousin, Linnie begins her journey home to the East, but doesn't tell anyone that she's first going to travel up the Missouri River to tell her cousin's fiance, a lieutenant in the Army stationed at a remote fort, that he's lost his betrothed to another man.  As she's dashing off to Chicago on her honeymoon after her not-so-spontaneous marriage to the man her father wanted her to marry (a businessman with potential rather than a man rotting his life away in the army), the shallow cousin asks Linnie to write the good lieutenant a Dear John letter for her.  Linnie said she would, but couldn't bring herself to do it because she's secretly smitten with the young lieutenant. He's understandably upset when Linnie shows up rather than his bride-to-be, but he marries Linnie the day she arrives for the sake of her safety and saving face. They eventually fall in love while dealing with the hardships and dangers of Army life on the plains.

Aldrich based this novel on the diary of an Army wife that someone had sent her--she was known for collecting pioneer stories to authenticate her fiction. I'd love to read the original diary to see what Aldrich made up, what she may have left out, and how she transformed the woman's personal writings into fiction of her own. The novel was published in 1942 and I wonder if Aldrich chose this story as a subject at this time due to the pro-army feeling she created.

I enjoyed The Lieutenant's Lady and recommend it to readers who are interested in the historical time period and/or western literature.  It isn't a particularly sophisticated story and the writing is not graceful, so I wouldn't recommend it to a general literary fiction reader.  It's the kind of book I loved to read and deconstruct as an undergraduate as racial attitudes, gender issues, and themes like service vs greed abound.

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