Trials of the Earth is Mary Mann Hamilton’s memoir about her hardscrabble life in America during the late 1800’s.
She uses period speech to illuminate a life of struggle and hard work. If certain anachronistic and racially insensitive terms bother you, especially the casual use of the N-word, you may want to chose another memoir. It was shocking but I kept reminding myself that Mary was a product of her times.
On top of the constant struggle of putting food on the table and keeping a roof over her head, it seems like she was perpetually pregnant and her husband was an alcoholic.
But Mary lived up to the challenges, raised and buried children, nursed her husband through his hangovers and illnesses- she was a survivor. That is mainly what Trials of the Earth was to me- a survival story.
“Nevertheless, this is not a book of repining; it is a tale simply told of what one woman has lived through in the Mississippi Delta. I say ‘lived through’ because at times this history reads like a record of the extreme limits of human endurance.” loc 75, introduction
So many of the modern conveniences that we take for granted didn’t exist. Mary moved around a lot and notes with relief every time her husband manages to install a pump in her new house so that she didn’t have to haul water from the river.
Mary’s relationship with her husband, Frank, isn’t a fair deal. She is a very young woman when she gets married and from the start he’s controlling- telling her what they will eat and what friends they will have. He even tells her what books she can read.
That would have been the last straw for me. But again, she was a woman of her times.
“To me he seemed like a man that had taken a silly child to raise rather than a wife. … As time went on I found there were plenty other things I didn’t know, too. The first thing I found out was that he drank.” loc 226, ebook.
In addition to the inequality in their relationship, Frank is from England and has a secret past. He won’t tell Mary, his own wife, his real name or talk about his circumstances or the family he left behind. But, Mary doesn’t let it bother her too much. I suppose she was too busy with everything else they had going on. That lack of trust would have driven me bonkers.
Not that she felt like anything was wrong with their relationship. “Women can stand more work, more trouble, and more religion than men.” loc 528, ebook. She accepted the hardships because she knew that she could. I admire her gumption but I also felt sad for her too. I felt sad because she didn’t have the option to live any other sort of life.
Frank is always talking about the sin of Eve and all the baggage that comes with it to Mary. There is a lot of mansplaining that goes on too. Parts of this book were infuriating to me.
Recommended for readers who enjoy memoirs that read like historical fiction. Ability to tolerate the bleak role that women occupied in society in the late 1800’s is a must.
Thank you to NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company for a free advance reader’s copy of this book. Reminder: some of the quotations in this review may change in the final printed copy.
Thanks for reading!