Letters from Yellowstone

Written by Diane Smith
Review by Trudi Jacobson

A. E. Bartram, a medical student at Cornell University though a botanist at heart, writes to Professor H. G. Merriam of Montana, asking to join his field study in Yellowstone National Park. A. E. Bartram is “young, single, and without any engagement” at Cornell to keep from joining the expedition, which is to commence in May of 1898. Professor Merriam writes that he is delighted to have Bartram join the group, and asks about the last name—is there a relationship to the prestigious botanist family?

Professor Merriam is much less delighted when he finds that A. E. Bartram is Alexandria Bartram. He confides his concern in letters to his mother, just as Alexandria writes about the lack of acceptance to a friend and to an instructor. The title describes the book perfectly— it is indeed a collection of letters, from these two individuals as well as another member of the expedition and others more peripherally connected with it. Reading about the same events from radically different viewpoints was highly engaging.

Intermingled with news from the field study are glimpses of the growing pains of a young nation. We learn of friction relating to Yellowstone Park: campaigns to allow the railroads access through the Park are countered by fear that this will destroy the natural beauty and isolation of an area that should be protected for future generations. We briefly observe equally divided views on native Americans. These extra-expedition topics serve to ground the story, otherwise rather removed from the country at large, solidly in time and place.

I can’t recommend this book too highly—it is one of the best I’ve read all year.