Mary Mann Hamilton’s story is a memoir, but it’s unlike most any you’ve read — because it is just that: memories, laid down straight and true, of her life as a pioneer of the Mississippi Delta in the late 1800s. It’s like a history book, except it utterly lacks any context of national events.

And therein lies the hook of this book: Hamilton couldn’t tell you because she didn’t know about anything beyond her porch.

As one of the first white settlers of the American South, her life was one of isolation, rootlessness and unbelievably arduous days. She wrote out these memories in her old age at the urging of a friend in 1936, but the manuscript lay almost forgotten until now.

There’s nothing fine about the writing, nor provocative about her thoughts. But Hamilton’s matter-of-factness wins you over almost immediately, and unexpectedly. She can tell a story — carving fields from a wilderness of cane and snakes, living among panthers and wild hogs, losing children to death, and all with a husband who has a secret that remains just out of reach.

More remarkably, she writes without complaint, ready to leave this world “for a better one, if such a thing can be.”

Most remarkably, this book somehow enables a reader not to feel abject guilt at complaining about the temperature of their latte, but only a genuine gratefulness and admiration for those who went before.


Kim Ode is a Star Tribune feature writer. On Twitter: @Odewrites

Trials of the Earth
By: Mary Mann Hamilton.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 318 pages, $27.