The Diary of Mattie Spenser: A Novel

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9780312187101: The Diary of Mattie Spenser: A Novel

No one is more surprised than Mattie Spenser herself when Luke Spenser, considered the great catch of their small Iowa town, asks her to marry him. Less than a month later, they are off in a covered wagon to build a home on the Colorado frontier. Mattie's only company is a slightly mysterious husband and her private journal, where she records the joys and frustrations not just of frontier life, but also of a new marriage to a handsome but distant stranger. As she and Luke make life together on the harsh and beautiful plains, Mattie learns some bitter truths about her husband and the girl he left behind and finds love where she least expects it. Dramatic and suspenseful, this is an unforgettable story of hardship, friendship and survival.

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About the Author:

Award-winning author Sandra Dallas was dubbed "a quintessential American voice" by Jane Smiley, in Vogue Magazine. She is the author of The Bride's House, Whiter Than Snow, Prayers for Sale and Tallgrass, among others. She is the recipient of the Women Writing the West Willa Award and the two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award. For 25 years, Dallas worked as a reporter covering the Rocky Mountain region for Business Week, and started writing fiction in 1990. She lives with her husband in Denver, Colorado.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1
May 9, 1865. Fort Madison, Iowa.
My name is Mattie Faye McCauley Spenser. I am twenty-two years old, and this is my book. It was given to me on Sunday last by Carrie Collier Fritch on the occasion of my marriage to Luke McCamie Spenser. Carrie says I am to use it to record my joys and sorrows, and to keep a thorough record of our wedding trip overland to Colorado Territory and the events in the life of an old married woman. Then I’m to send it back to her.
Well, maybe I will, and maybe I won’t.
I was married in my navy blue China silk with the mutton-leg sleeves, a sensible dress, because I am not given to extravagances. Besides, there was not time to make a proper wedding ensemble, since Luke was anxious to be married and on our way out west. As I did not care to begin my new life with a matrimonial squall, I dutifully agreed, although meekness is not in my nature.
This marriage happened so fast that it took away my breath. I had no idea Luke thought of himself as my beau. Everyone believed I was a confirmed old maid, destined to do no more in life than spend my afternoons tutoring refractory scholars in grammar and penmanship, as I have done for two years. At best, I might have wed Abner Edkins—perhaps I should say “at worst,” because Abner never was my choice, and if the truth be told, I would rather be an old maid than his bride. Still, I have Abner to thank for my wedded bliss. Luke said Abner confided in him that he had plans to make a proposal of marriage to me before the week was out. So although Luke had supposed he would wait a while longer before declaring himself, my Darling Boy came to the farm ahead of Abner and made known his intentions. That was exactly four weeks to the day before our marriage.
I was swept off my feet, as the saying goes, for I had never expected to make such a handsome match. Luke is by far the best catch in Lee County. He spent two years away at normal school before leaving to defend the dear old Union. His is a noble character, and he was one of the first to join up from Iowa, proved his mettle at Shiloh, where he was felled by a bullet. He spent several weeks in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, then was discharged and sent home to recuperate on the family farm, where his parents hoped he would stay for good. Luke’s father owns many sections of land, on which is situated a fine house. It is much larger and grander than our humble farm, although I think ours more cheerful.
But farming at Fort Madison is not for Luke. He tried it for a time, but when he was fully recovered from his wounds, he went away to claim a homestead in far-off Colorado. Then he returned to claim a wife. I’ve known Luke all my life, but I never thought of him as my lover. I had believed him to be Persia Chalmers’s suitor because they have been keeping company ever so long. So imagine my surprise when the wife he desired was Self!
Luke is of a good build and height, just over six feet, with hair like the stubble left in the fields after haying, and eyes as luminously blue as agates. When he smiles, the right side of his mouth curves up more than the left. He has a pleasant countenance, and his face is not so plain as mine. Unlike my life’s partner, I am plain all over. My form is too thin, my face too square, and my forehead broad. Being somewhat over five feet eight inches in height, I am too tall ever to be considered a looker. Handsome is the best I might be, and then only on special occasions, and in poor light.
My plainness does not bother Luke. He says it is an asset, since we will be living in a Godless land, where men become crazed where women are concerned. I would not want to cause him vexation by attracting admiring glances, so it seems that neither one of us has to worry about me on that score. Well, it’s the first time I ever was glad to be plain.
“You are a suitable cook and well made for work, and you’ll have plenty of that where we’re going. You are a strong-minded woman and not given to foolish ways. I’m glad you’re not the kind to attract men like bees around the honey,” he said when he proposed. “I’m bound for Colorado, and if you’re agreeable, you may come, too. I’m clean in my ways and a Christian, and I promise to be the best husband I know how. So if you’ll agree, Mattie, I’d be proud to take you as my wife. I require a yes or no right away.”
It wasn’t a pretty speech. Surprised and pleased though I was, I wished there had been a little less common sense, and more passion to his proposal. I suppose a prudent man (and Luke is that) should choose a wife with the same expert eye he turns on a cow. Still, I chided him a little before giving my answer. “You didn’t say a word about love, Luke Spenser,” said I.
He rebuked me, and rightly so. “I thought you to be a practical girl. If it’s words you want, you ought to wait for Abner. He’ll be along directly,” replied he. Then he blushed and added, “I’m not much for that kind of talk, but do you think I would be here if I did not have feelings for you?”
Well, having studied mathematics to discipline the mind during the two years I spent at Oberlin College, I think I am a practical girl—practical enough to know Luke might find another if I did not reply at once. And perhaps it was best he spoke his mind in such a direct way, giving me a clear view of our future together instead of sugarcoating it with silly speeches. I believe Carrie is right in saying that strong men are not given to declarations of love, anyway.
So I meditated on it for a few moments. Marriage is life’s most serious step for a woman, and the proposal, catching me unaware as it had, seemed to call for contemplation. Still, at that instant, I knew he had won my heart and should have my hand, as well. I replied promptly, in the manner of his proposal, “You suit me, Luke, and so does your proposal.”
What does not suit me so well is this business of the matrimonial bed. I’ve never seen a man stark before, and it was an odd thing, though not so much of a surprise. (He has six toes on each foot, which I have not mentioned to him, as Luke does not care to be teased. Nor did I laugh at his skinny legs when first I saw them sticking out from under his nightshirt.) But it was the act itself that disappointed. Carrie had told me not to expect too much, but still, I had hoped for more. There must be a reason the cows crowd the bull, and the sows the boar. I wonder what a pig knows that I don’t.
The first night, Luke did not touch me at all, which I blamed on the excitement of the day and his respect for my feelings, since I was not only ignorant of what would happen in bed but also frightened.
The second night, he thrashed about, hurting me a little. Then it was over. I’d judge it took a minute, no more than two, at most. So it is not a serious loss of time. Carrie promised I’d get used to it and even grow to like it, but I doubt that. I shall be happy to dispense with it when we have as many children as we want. I thought there would be kissing and hugging, but except for a peck on the cheek at our wedding, which embarrassed me so much that I wiped it off, Luke does not seem inclined to show such affection.
I precede myself. The wedding was in the dear little Methodist-Episcopal church where I grew up and until a week ago taught Sunday school. It was decorated with white lilacs and white candles. Luke gave me a ring of gold with a cluster of garnets set in it.
I asked Carrie to attend me so that there would be no cause for jealousy among my sisters from my choosing one above the others. Besides, Carrie is exactly my age and has ever been my dearest friend, and I wanted her beside me as I took the first step into my new life. Luke chose Abner to stand up with him, but Abner pouted so during the service that he almost spoiled the day. I was bound he should not do so, for it was my day. So I told Abner I thought Persia was sweet on him. That cheered him somewhat, although I know he would rather have me than her. Just think of it! Two men prefer me to Persia Chalmers!
Afterward, Father said, “How do, Mrs. Spenser,” and I turned to Luke’s mother, which made everyone laugh, except for Mama Spenser, who frowned. It is a good thing we are to leave for Colorado soon, or I would have my work cut out for me on her account.
My own dear mother outdid herself with the tasty repast following the service. And my beloved Carrie made splendid bride and groom cakes. She hugged me as soon as the deed ’twas done and said now we were both old married women. O, I am sad at the thought of leaving her, but “a woman is supposed to cleave to her husband,” I told her. That was when Carrie whispered not to expect too much in bed for a while.
The night prior to our wedding, Luke gave me a little trunk made of black leather, lined in blue-and-white ticking, with a cunning compartment hidden in the lid. I like it fine, and I will use it to store my favorite things, including this journal.
In, turn, I presented Luke with a yellow silk vest that I had fashioned myself and embroidered all over with flowers. I had stayed awake late into the night to make it, and I was rewarded when Luke wore it at our ceremony. He seemed quite pleased when Persia admired it. I fancied she was jealous of me for snatching Luke away, because the saucy girl told me she’d never seen a bride in such an ugly dress.
“Why, Persia, what would make you say such a thing?” I asked, more from surprise than annoyance.
“Why would I say such a thing?” she repeated. “Because it is true.”
So I returned the “favor,” and when no one was watching, I stuck out my tongue at Persia. Cry shame! Marriage has made me bold. May 17, 1865. Overland Trail, Missouri. Fifty-four miles west from Fort Madison.
We are off! Four days on the trail!
We had planned to leave the third day after our wedding, but dear, thoughtful Husband said he would give me more time for my good-byes, for who knows when we will ever see our loved ones again? Nonetheless, I was anxious to be away, since I did not want people looking at me in the way they do at all brides. It was bad enough staying with Mother and Father Spenser and knowing they were watching. And listening!
I thanked Luke for his consideration and did not let on that I knew the real reason for not leaving as scheduled was that he was not satisfied with the provisions. Then there was that business about the pigs. Luke had bought a sow from a farmer for us to take along, but she swolled up and did not look as if she could make the trip. I was just as glad to be rid of her, because I don’t fancy driving a pig to Colorado. Maybe Luke changed his mind, for he asked for the return of his money instead of a second pig. I’ve learned this much about Luke: He demands satisfaction in all things, and that makes me wonder why he chose me for his life’s companion, as I am far from perfect. I pray he does not regret our marriage, as I will not. I should be quite out of sorts if he tried to return me like the pig, so I shall be careful not to swoll up.
After we agreed to be engaged, we spent every waking moment in preparation for the trip to Colorado. I gave much time to the cooking and drying and salting of food. There were quilts to be finished—I hope Luke knows his haste is responsible for my failing to have the thirteen handmade coverlets required of brides—and, Lordy, what a lot of packing and unpacking, then packing all over again. Luke, who is the cleverest of men, told me to store my prized Delft plate and other breakables in the barrels of flour, cornmeal, and sugar.
Husband warned me I could take only the most practical items. We had many a merry discussion of what fit his term of “practical,” and as he insists I am to be an obedient wife, he got his way. At least he thinks so. Oh, I am learning a great deal about men! I have taken my little japanned writing desk, which fits snugly on my lap, for I place the highest value on letters to and from home (as well as recording events in this journal). And hidden among the pots and pans are these little items I consider indispensable, though Husband may not: the pillow cover Carrie made from cigar silks, the hair wreath from Aunt Sabra, and, of course, my velvet bonnet with the cunning flowers. Bonnets are my especial weakness. I brought along a sunbonnet, too, but it is an ugly, hateful thing. I wore it all last summer in the fields, but now that I am Mrs. Luke Spenser, I’ve grown vain and hope that I shall never have to wear it again.
I insisted on taking my little walnut commode, which was Grandmother McCauley’s and is filled with my clothing and our bedding. It is the repository, as well, for my Holy Bible and Dr. Chase’s Recipes, or Information for Everybody, for which I gave a dollar. Sister Mary tucked in scraps of rose madder-dyed goods for a quilt and pillow slips trimmed in lace. She and the other girls at home worry that I will not have pretty things in Colorado Territory, but I say I don’t need them. The way Luke describes our new homestead, I think it will be prettier than anything I could take with me.
This little book comes, too, hidden in the secret compartment of the trunk. Luke has not seen my journal yet, and I do not propose to show it to him, since I could not confide in it if I knew Luke were to read my words—although I do not think he could do so easily, since when I finish writing across a page, I turn it so that I can write crosswise over the entry. I do not like keeping secrets from my “guardian and master,” but I fancy he may have one or two from me. We have so much to learn about each other. Of course, this means I may write only during moments when Luke is not around. Just now, he is off discussing oxen with the men.
There are not so many prairie ships headed for St. Joseph as earlier in the season, since it is very late in the year for emigrants to embark. Besides, some travelers take the stage and are then outfitted on the Missouri. Luke felt we could do better with our money by buying some of our farm implements at home and avoiding as much as possible the gougers at St. Joe. It is not the most direct route, says Husband, but we can get the best provisioning there. The wagons we see are pulled by oxen, but we are transported by six grays, which Luke’s father gave us as a wedding present. They are as handsome a team of horses as there ever was, but more suited to carriages than to a Conestoga. I confided such to Luke, for I know as much about a farm as any man, but he said he hadn’t solicited my opinion. He has asked everybody else’s opinion, however, about whether to swap the horses for mules or oxen when we get to St. Joe. I shall try to do as Carrie warned me, keeping my mouth shut and managing Luke in other ways.
We had been married nearly a week before we pulled out. Though we were early astir, Mother, Father, and my three sisters and two brothers were there to see us off. They slept only a few hours before rising for chores and hurrying to the Spensers’ place, where Luke and I were nearly ready to embark on our adventure. I miss the folks dreadfully already, especially the girls, as we were always a merry group—and Carrie, too. She begged me not to forget her, and she said if we did not meet again in this life, we would surely be together in the next. Luke frowned when I pointed to the ground, meaning Hell, but Carrie and I broke into fits of the giggles.
As we started off, my youngest sister, Jemima, who is six, ran after the wagon, crying for her “sugar.” Luke stopped, but I could see he was vexed at doing it. So I let her love my neck and gave her the briefest of kisses. She had to content herself with waving us out of sight and shouting, “Ho for Colorado!”
Luke did not scold her, however. I suppose ...

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