Tag Archives: Elizabeth Letts

THE RIDE OF HER LIFE

March is Women’s History Month. My choice for 2021 recognition is the life of an ordinary woman who achieved an extraordinary thing.

I received an ARC of The Ride of Her Life, by award winning author, Elizabeth Letts and met Annie Wilkins. This is the true story of a plain and simple 63-year-old woman in poor health who was told she had less than 4 years to live.  Annie Wilkins was the last of her family and unable to work the farm. A kind doctor found her a place to stay at the County Home; a quiet place to wait out her fate. That option didn’t sit well with the hard working, strong willed, and independent Annie.

Ignoring nay-sayers, a poor choice of seasons to start, dead-broke, poor health, inadequate clothing, few food supplies, and without a plan or a map, Annie set on November 5, 1954 from Minot, Maine to fulfill her father’s dream to see California. Her mode of transportation was a retired trotting horse. She reasoned it was better to sit in a saddle and see the world than die of boredom in a rocking chair.

Annie had little formal education and little knowledge of life beyond her Maine farm. Yet she firmly believed in the kindness of strangers and her ability to achieve whatever she set her mind to doing. She did successfully cross into California, just as she started, in the dead-of-winter, on March 25, 1956.

The ride wasn’t always sunshine and roses. She soon learned that  automobiles now ruled the roads, saddle tramps were history, and the United States had wicked weather and elevation challenges. Annie also was relieved to find strangers who were kind and generous outnumbered those who were stinkers and hateful people. She suffered injuries and near frostbite but nothing slowed her down for long.

After her journey, Annie fulfilled another ambition. Using her nickname, Mesannie, she submitted her memoir entitled The Last of the Saddle Tramps to a publisher. Editors polished the crusty edges off her character to suit the readers of the God-fearing era. They transformed Annie into “Doris Day”, and the book was published in 1967.

In 2017, the author, Elizabeth Letts, began a lengthy and exhaustive search for  facts about Annie, before, during and after her journey, that would culminate in her newest work, The Ride of Her life to be published in June of 2021. Where Annie’s book is told from personal experience, Lett’s new book is more a travelogue of the journey using what remains of Annie’s journals, newspapers articles and personal interviews. The book is nicely annotated.

I found the book fascinating, Annie as stubborn as a mule, the towns and communities along the way generous and invested in her journey. And in the end, I know that dumb luck played a part in her success as well. This journey could not be accomplished today. Horse lovers, history buffs, and curious travelers will enjoy the read.

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FINDING DOROTHY

“Just because you can see a rainbow doesn’t mean you know how to get to the other side.” ― Elizabeth Letts, Finding Dorothy

Twenty years after the death of the “original Wizard”, Frank Baum, his seventy-seven year-old widow, Maud, headed to Hollywood. It’s 1938. MGM is making a movie based on Frank’s very popular book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She’s ready to step onto the yellow brick  to help Dorothy on her journey.

Frank, himself, had seen the potential of bringing Oz to life in film but he feared, without his oversight, the intended message would be lost. Someone must protect Dorothy! Frank turned to the love of his life, Maud Gage Baum, to stand in his stead.

The engaging historical novel parallels narratives alternating between Maud’s time in Hollywood and her life story beginning in Fayetteville, NY when she is ten years-old. Tucked nicely in each narrative are clues to the magic of Frank’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the source of Maud’s strength of character and inimitable spirit.

Much like our present day civil rights advocate, Tarana Burke and the Me, Too Movement, Maud was surrounded by strong willed 19th-century women’s suffragists. Her mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage and her “Aunt” Susan B. Anthony famous still today. She watched by the sidelines as her mother, a modern day Sisyphus pushed the large rock of gender discrimination up the steep hill toward equality.

Matilda was determined that Maud would get a world class education and was elated when she was accepted as one of the first women at Cornell University. Maud soon found that university life and studies were more her mother’s aspirations than her own. When she met her roommate’s cousin, Frank Baum, she knew where her destiny lay. She had met her soulmate.

Life was tough in the Baum household. Frank was a fabulous father, a dreamer, an actor, and a playwright. He lived with one foot in the real world and the other in his vivid imagination. A quick wit and a kind heart don’t go a long way to support a growing family. Maud was the backbone of the family and stood by her man through thick and thin as they moved from town to town following Frank’s latest vision.

Their destinies changed when Frank sat down and drew upon a lifetime of memories and wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The popularity of that first book led to many others and the family finances and security improved greatly.

Back in 1938 Hollywood, Maud knew the secrets of Frank’s books and our author has interjected some of them in the novel. Read carefully and you will spot some of them yourself.

It is true that Maud met Judy Garland and was on set during the filming. The author has chosen to expose the ugly underbelly of Hollywood and the tragic impact it had on Judy Garland’s personal life. It is doubtful that Maud had as much contact with Judy as the novel describes but it is engaging to think that Maud in some way did try to protect the innocence of a young actress.

“Magic isn’t things materializing out of nowhere, Magic is when a lot of people all believe in the same thing at the same time, and somehow we all escape ourselves a little bit and we meet up somewhere, and just for a moment, we taste the sublime”
― Elizabeth Letts, Finding Dorothy

Finding Dorothy draws together Maud’s story from all perspectives and makes a fascinating read.  Recommended reading.

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