The book titled ?Land of Enchantment? by Marian Russell (1845-1936) is an account of her travels…

The book titled “Land of Enchantment” by Marian Russell (1845-1936) is an account of her travels along the Santa Fe Trail as a child during the 1850s and 1860s. The book is addressed to her daughter in law, Miss Hal Russell, to whom she dictated it in the 1930s. But, the aim of the book, according to the author is “to preserve to posterity the truth and the warmth of an unforgettable period in American history; the stirring decades in which sturdy pioneers blazed trails across a strange and wondrous land of prairies, plains and mountains”. Hence the book may be considered as addressed to all future generations of readers who are fascinated by the American West and in particular the Santa Fe trail. It was published in a limited edition in 1954 and due to high ratings by leading critics, the demand for the book far exceeded the stock.

The Santa Fe Trail was historically a popular route in New Mexico that was used for commercial travel across the West. As such it was used more frequently by merchants than by emigrants. It was rare to find women on the Santa Fe Trail and this makes this account by Marian Russell a very special one. It is one of the few firsthand accounts by a woman of life on the Santa Fe Trail. The book brings to life nineteenth century New Mexico from the eyes of a seven year old girl. Adding more color to the accounts are Mrs. Russell’s memories of several well-known western figures. This book is truly a historical account of the Santa Fe Trail.

The book is a first-person account of the author’s travels and hence the book is highly authentic. Moreover, the meticulousness of the details included in this travel account provides the book with a high degree of value as a historical book. Marian Russell was the third and last child of William and Eliza St. Clair Sloan, who were of Scottish ancestry.

She was named after Lady Marian Wallace whose tragic story touched her mother’s heart. In this book, the author traces her life story from 1848 to 1936. During this period, she moved from St. Louis to California with her mother. The travel took her across the Santa Fe Trail – the historic nature of which is best brought out through Russell’s words: “It led from our eastern seaboard to the waters of the blue Pacific. If we could but measure it by the tears and the smiles it has known we would never be able to trace its way through American history”.

The style of writing is very simple but very colorful. The author uses descriptive words to bring the scene before the readers: “…as we bore westward, the deer and the antelope bounded away from us. There were miles and miles of buffalo grass, blue lagoons and blood-red sunsets and, once in a while, a little sod house on the lonely prairie-home of some hunter or trapper”. She also includes minute details such as the freight charges during that period in time. “The freight rate to Santa Fé was $10.00 per hundred pounds. Teamsters and drivers were paid $25.00 per month plus rations”. The narrative is partly child like and partly adult in perspective as this is an account of the experiences of a small child dictated in an adult voice.

The author talks about the dangers due to native Indians on the Santa Fe Trail. She recounts with horror the night when the Indians attacked the camp she was staying in and stole a herd of two hundred army horses. During this account, the author also gives deep insights to the culture of the people she met. The Indians she noticed valued some relatively small worth articles such as charms and disposed easily of some things of real value.

These charms could be in the form of a war bonnet or a breech clout or even just a smooth pebble from the river. But charms were never for sale. Apart from Indian culture, she also gives accounts of the animals and plants along the route: big spiders, centipedes, scorpions, spiders, rattle snakes and lizards. There was also a variety of cactus that resembled trees, wild asters, scarlet honeysuckle, and night blooming poppies. Her poetic way of perception binds the reader’s interest in the book: “Sometimes a cactus, an old bone or a bunch of red grass caused the desert mirage to assume gigantic proportions”.

Through her dialogue with Captain Aubry, Marian Russell traces the history of New Mexico. She also includes great details on Fort Union. She describes Santa Fe as a place full of “donkeys, goats and Mexican chickens”. During her stay at Santa Fe and Albuquerque, she gives accounts of Mexican food, their housing, their lifestyle, the legends they believed in, the Mexican Mandolin, their dressing style, the tragic story of Mrs. Adelaide Wilson, and the faith of the Catholic nuns. She crisply notes: “The old Mexican was pure Spanish and Indian, and often the Indian blood predominated; a class of people as colorful as the land in which they lived”.

Thus, the book “Land of the Enchanted” by Marian Russell is a must-read for anyone with a fascination for Mexican history and culture. With the kaleidoscopic nature of details included, the book will be highly informative from many viewpoints: science, history, sociology, archeology, spirituality and humanity as well.

Bibliography:

Russell, Marian (1981). Land of Enchantment: Memoirs of Marian Russell along the Santa Fae Trail. University of New Mexico Press, 1981

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