Book Review

Homesteading on Grasshopper Flats, A Review
by Roy Stewart

Homesteading on Grasshopper Flats, by Etta Rose Knox with Illustrations by Marinell Harriman; A Grama Grass Edition, Drollery Press, Alameda, CA, 1984

“I want a young wife, a young country girl. Then I can train her the way I want,” said Aubrey; “I hoped he was joking,” thought Etta. In thirteen years of marriage with multiple hardships and episodes of near starvation, she found that he wasn’t joking. Thus begins this fast paced “novel” that relates the author’s heart wrenching story of a primitive, hand-to-mouth existence in the high country of New Mexico, thirty-fives miles north-west of Quemado, along the Great Divide.

Author Etta Rose Knox has chosen to “novelize” her story because: “A chronicle of events in documentary style,” she writes in her Preface, “would not have told the whole story. The hardship of scratching for physical survival in a remote wasteland is only half the story. The other half deals with emotional survival. It deals with improvised pleasure, pride, and perseverance and with the goals and dreams that hold together a fragile marriage in the face of suffering and despair.” “All of the occurrences in the book are true,” she says, “They are my own recollections of life on a New Mexico homestead. The characters are real people, and the names have not been changed.”

Etta suffered disappointment early in the marriage.  Aubrey had placed her in a rented house and equipped it with beautiful furniture that he had gotten from trading a beloved car. She had been reared in the poor but loving household of her sharecropper dad, so this five-room home equipped with beautiful living-room furniture was heaven like. She no sooner became used to it, than it was gone—traded for a broken-down truck and being told that they were moving to a homestead in another part of New Mexico. She had no part in this decision to relocate, and that powerlessness over major life decisions was to be her lot throughout the six years recorded in this book.

What brought on Aubrey’s decision to go homesteading was the similar decision of her Uncle Lon and Aunt Birdie Hayhurst, and their six children. Lon and Birdie had lost their dairy farm and herd in the ongoing Great Depression. Etta wrote that they were a wrinkled and browned-by-the-sun pair who could have served as models for the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s  novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

Etta and Aubrey Lewis, and their infant son Tommy, followed the Hayhurst family and settled nearby. There was a difference in their circumstances, however. The Hayhurst family settled on land open for homesteading and was thereby able to make a claim on a full section (640 acres) of land; the Lewis family (meaning Aubrey’s decision) had to settle on land that had been closed to homesteading. So, instead of being able to file a claim, they had to “squat” on their section. Aubrey told Etta they could gain the land using Squatter’s Rights, which meant that, arguably, they could lay claim after ten years of occupancy. Therefore, at the start of their life together, Aubrey had given and taken back the promise of a settled life--A life in a house with good furniture for Squatter’s Rights to barren land that was miles away from family and friends. It was also miles away from any other person!

Etta never even had the semblance of a house for several weeks, or maybe months—the timeline is unclear. She and the baby were forced to camp in the open in the increasingly cold and windy plains. The baby was sick with a fever and Aubrey was out all day every day searching for someone to help him build a cabin. She wanted to temporarily move back with her parents, who had relocated to a farm near the Hayhurst’s claim. But Aubrey would not allow that. After several days of camping, her father visited and, upon seeing the sickness in Tommy, suggested she move back home until her husband got a cabin built. Still Aubrey refused his permission. With the health of her son at stake, she stood up to him and insisted on going with her father. Before leaving, she asked Aubrey to hurry with the cabin and come for her. He angrily replied “I’ll never come for you. He’s taking you away and he can bring you back.”

She remained with her parents for several weeks and luxuriated in the “joy to find myself on a wooden floor! A floor without ants or snakes where Tommy could safely learn to walk!” In all those weeks Aubrey never wrote. Finally one day she received a short, one-page note that the cabin was built and she could come home now. When her father got her there, she was shocked to find not a cabin but a dugout and no furniture. After trading away the handsome living-room furniture earlier, he had now traded away the remaining bedroom furniture (walnut bedstead, phonograph, and dresser) for help with building this dugout.

She describes this dugout, her new “home,” as follows: It had been dug into a straight low bluff “letting the hillside furnish the back wall and part of the sides. The result was a sort of half-dugout that opened at ground level. The front and side walls that extended out from the hill were built of rough, uneven rock of all shapes and sizes plastered together with mud. On each side was a glassless window with canvas stretched across. This could be rolled up or lowered depending on the weather. A piece of canvas served as a closing for the door.”

At this point something needs to be explained, lest the reader think Aubrey was a monster and Etta a wimp. Both of these people were of their times. They had both been raised in strict Christian homes where the Bible taught that in a marriage the man was supreme and the woman submissive. She had observed this relationship with her parents and in the families of her relatives—especially her Uncle Lom and Aunt Birdie. Etta wrote: “In that pious and male-dominated world a wife was subject to her husband. The system worked for my parents. It had never occurred to me that the justice came from my parents not from the system.” After another thoughtless act by Aubrey, she wrote: “I never thought to question his right to lay down the rules, but rather why the rules were so unfair. Yet believing as I did then, I thought it was my duty to obey them.”

Obey them, she continued to do all throughout this period in which Aubrey persisted in his seemingly callous disregard of her needs, wants, and desires. In one example, she had need for a floor in her dugout, so that Tommy could learn to walk properly. Aubrey traded for some wooden planks but begged off laying the floor, because of weather or some such reason. As a result, the planks stayed stacked outside. Later, he traded them off for a tractor. He justified this trade by saying that the planks were getting warped because of laying outside in the weather. So, Etta continued living with a dirt floor and Tommy went on struggling with learning how to walk properly.

In another example of her wants being disregarded, was in visiting relatives and friends. She wanted to visit Aunt Birdie, on one occasion, and her dear friend Beadie, on another. In both instances, Aubrey’s reply was “I can’t have you running all over the countryside, your place is at home,” or words to that effect. Another example of his callousness came after he had opened a charge account with Montgomery-Wards to purchase a radio. He told her “Don’t go thinking just because we’ve got a charge account, you can order anything you want.” “And with this remark,” she wrote, “he put me in my place.”

Throughout the book, she recounts many such instances of Aubrey’s highhandedness, but she also punctuates her narrative with passages declaring her love for this impossible man. She writes of his handsomeness and his “lopsided grin,” his “flashing black eyes,” and his “fearlessness.” Fearlessness that placed him on the back of a sorrel mare named Blossom, who “bucked like a tornado every time anyone attempted to ride her.” After witnessing one fearsome ride, she wrote, “He’ll be killed. I know he will, and I knew then how much I loved him and couldn’t face life without him.”

The one revelation that I found astonishing, was her description of acquiring an outhouse. She had homesteaded for more than two years, and was heavy with her second child, David, before it happened. She wrote: “It was the first one [outhouse] I had seen in that part of the country. Usually there was an unspoken agreement that the women would go behind bushes in one direction from the house, while the men went in an opposite way.” It was unthinkable, to this reviewer, that having an outhouse was not considered a necessary part of the home—much the same as a kitchen or a bedroom. But, apparently, it was not so considered by the folks in that long-ago time and place.

The book ends with Etta’s description of Aubrey’s death from tuberculosis. This narrative is disjointed and doesn’t flow with the story she tells. She says Aubrey became sick and was moved to a Veterans Administration Hospital in San Fernando, California, which was a too far from their home in New Mexico. The reason, as explained by Marinell Harriman (the book’s illustrator and editor and Etta’s daughter) is that Aubrey’s death did not occur until 1947. Etta wanted it in the book because it provided a fitting end to her story. This narrative is written with a tenderness that worms its way into the reader’s heart. Her ending completes the story of Aubrey’s ineptness to which she had alluded in earlier chapters: his ineptness as a homesteader in not acquiring a claim to his land; as a husband and father in not providing a proper home for his family; as a farmer in badly plowing the arid planes where they lived; as a trucker-for-hire in finding cargo to haul; and as a father in raising an inquisitive son.

Her story’s denouement is prefaced by Aubrey’s parting gift, as he lay dying in his hospital bed. It was a small golden heart on a tiny, thread-like, golden chain, with her initials engraved in the center. “I’d never seen anything so beautiful in all my life,” she wrote. This lovely, touching gift led to her final observation:

I realized that I was seeing through the wall—through his facade of optimism and courage. I was seeing him for the first time with his fears and self-doubts and his need to prove himself. I saw the small man he felt himself to be, hidden behind that outer shell of superiority and dominance. He must have thought I’d leave him if I found him out. Oh, if he could have known! It didn’t have to be that way. He could have held me by love, instead of by force.

Aubrey, Etta, Tommy, and David had left Grasshopper Flats in 1939 and moved west to Shoshone, then on to San Bernardino, both in California, where daughter Marinell was born, in 1941. After Aubrey’s death, Etta remained a widow for five years. In 1952 she married the somewhat disabled Michael Yancey, who struggled to support the family until his death in January 1960. Etta had learned to drive a car, by then, and was working in a hospital kitchen at the time of his death. Widowed once again, she went to work for Don Knox, as a caregiver to his invalid mother. Don was a bachelor at the age of 46. He was shy and in keeping with his straightforward manner, he asked Etta if she was “available for courtin’.” They were married June 30, 1961, much to the delight of Marinell and her brothers. Don brought her flowers on the 30th of every month for the rest of her life. He provided her with the love and affection that she had longed for in her marriage with Aubrey.

Tommy and David were largely self-educated. As predicted in the book, Tommy was mathematically inclined.  He joined the navy at seventeen and learned electronics engineering.  His career with private companies took him across the country and to Scotland. He married and had three daughters. He finally settled with a government job at Mare Island, California. He had business ventures with David on the side. In the late 1970s, they put together a computer model that was installed in the Hyatt Hotel chain, as part of an energy management program.  After retiring to a walnut orchard in Winters, California, he developed Parkinson’s Disease. He passed away in 2004.

David became a successful businessman and inventor. He bought a ranch in Stonyford, California, in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, Etta and Don came to live on his ranch. They both became valued members of the Stonyford community. With his handyman skills, Don was very active in restoring the 100-year-old building that became home to the Stonyford Grange. Etta’s creative writing and scrapbooking skills were put to good use in assisting with the documentation of the restoration of Stonyford’s long dormant Saint Mary of the Mountain Catholic Church. Etta died in 1999 and David in 2015.

Marinell became an artist and settled in Alameda, California. She and husband Bob actively encouraged Etta to get her story down on paper and into a book. Marinell illustrated Etta’s story with eight paintings that depict events from her life on Grasshopper Flats; she also edited the book. Bob, who was a professional in the book publishing business, assisted with the book’s organization and arranged for its publication. Marinell’s children, Bill and Tania, and Bill’s wife Amy, modeled for characters in the book. Marinell says that Amy, at 18, bore a striking resemblance to the 17-year-old Etta.

The book’s afterlife is a story in itself. After Etta’s death, in 1999, her belongings were moved into storage in a barn on son David’s ranch. There they remained for sixteen years, until David’s death in 2015. Then, upon clearing out the barn, Etta’s belongings were discovered. The belongings consisted of the original paintings that Marinell had created for the book and ten or so boxes of her books—still in their shrink-wrap covers. All had been carefully packaged to prevent elemental and critter damage. The books and paintings went to Marinell, who had purchased a ranch nearby. She and husband Bob organized a portion of their barn as a gallery to display the paintings and tell the story of the book’s creation. On April 16, 2016, Marinell and Bob, in coordination with the Stonyford Museum, opened their gallery to the public.

The book is available for purchase through the Stonyford Museum.