Tag Archives: Strength of Character

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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THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA

Once upon a time there were two sisters raised on a Minnesotan farm where they learned the Midwestern values of responsibility and hard work. Edith, the oldest, lived life day-to-day. Helen, obviously the younger sister, lived for the future. They loved each other very much.

Edith, the oldest, would give you the shirt off her back if you needed it. She loves farm life; the swaying grassy fields filled with cows, the comfort of routine, and the satisfaction at day’s end of a job well done. When life throws road blocks at Edith, her mental gyroscope finds a way to reset things to an even keel. Life throws a lot of lemons at Edith over the years but she always manages to find a way to help others and to care for herself.

Helen, the youngest, is a rebel; a master manipulator. The “Idgie Threadgoode” of the family. The sister determined to make her mark on the world and to be remembered for her efforts – whatever it turns out to be. She sees herself climbing the ladder to success by looking out for number one and keeping her eyes open for opportunity. She dearly loves her sister but can not understand how Edith can she be so happy living only in the moment with no long range life plan? 

In 1959, Edith marries a local truck driver, Stanley Magnusson. Now that Edith is married, she rationalizes that Edith has settled for an obscure easy life. Helen, now fifteen-years old, on the day of a family gathering, sneaks off to the barn with a bottle of stolen beer. With her first sip, she has an epiphany for her future. “I want to make beer!”  And she does just that.

To achieve her goal to make herself world famous and rich, she doesn’t mind stepping on other people. And she begins with Edith. 

Helen convinces her father that Edith has no long range goals in life. She gets him to secretly change his will. Upon his death, without Edith’s knowledge, Helen inherits everything. Helen doesn’t have the guts to tell Grace face-to-face. She breaks the news over the phone to Edith and she finds she misjudged how Edith will handle the deceit. That is the last day the girls will speak to each other.

Edith feels betrayed. Rather than sulk, she picks up the pieces of her life and moves on leaving Helen to her own life. From time to time, she briefly reflects how inheriting half of the family farm would have made her life easier.

The years chug along. Edith makes a life through hard-work and a positive attitude achieving fame in her own way. In the end, Helen sits alone in her crumbling ivory tower.  The final chapters hold surprises and a reunion.

The lives of the two girls provide us a full range of human emotions – admiration, amusement, anger, disappointment, pain, love, loss, sadness, sympathy, and triumph to name a few. This moving and captivating story will, at times, break your heart. And more often, it showcases how some people overcome obstacles to lead a loving and productive life. Ask yourself, have you ever thought you knew someone so well that you could get away with just about anything and they would still love you? Did you? Have they? Fabulous read during these pandemic times.

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