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Marianne Monson: Writing diverse historical stories of gritty, resilient women

Writers on Resilience: Marianne Monson

As a #podcasterforjustice, I stand with my sisters from the Women of Color Podcasters Community. We are podcasters united to condemn the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many others at the hands of police. This is a continuation of the systemic racism pervasive in our country since its inception and we are committed to standing against racism in all its forms.

This week my final “Writer on Resilience” is Marianne Monson, author of 11 books with an emphasis on frontier-era women's history. I discovered Marianne through her book Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women, which was on my top books list in 2017. She published Women of the Blue and Gray: Civil War Mothers, Medics, Soldiers, and Spies in 2018, and in 2020, Her Quiet Revolution: A Novel of Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon. I appreciate Marianne’s books for their stories of diverse characters (including Black and native women), in addition to her rich storytelling.

Marianne and her grandfather
Young Marianne with her grandfather

Born in Boston, Marianne spent much of her childhood moving around the country and finally landing in Chicago. Her transient life led her to the written word, as she relied on books and writing as a way to process her experience and find connection.

“Books helped me navigate the world. They helped me have a sense of constancy through all of that chaos and change. I was happiest when I was wandering around the forest with a book.”

She has always loved history, but as a child she didn't connect it with academic study. Her room looked like an antique store, and during one phase she washed her face in a basin with a pitcher. Both of her grandmothers lived in historic houses, and she loved exploring the attic, dressing up, and finding treasures.

Marianne with her brothers and cousins
Marianne, hands in the air, with her brothers and cousins

After earning a degree in English from BYU, she began working as an editor for a small publishing house in Portland, Beyond Words Publishing. She went on to earn an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an M.A. in English/language arts education from Pacific University. While trying to establish her writing career, she ended up getting divorced and raising her children as a single mom. She found that it was easier to have energy for writing when teaching at community colleges than when she was editing someone else’s writing.

Marianne Monson
Photo by Nathan Burton

Marianne had her first publishing success with The Enchanted Tunnel series of four children’s chapter books, which she wrote for her two children, Nathan and Aria. Her editor asked if she had any other books, so she showed her the book she wrote for her MFA thesis, which became The Water Is Wide, Marianne’s first historical novel. The Water Is Wide is based on her own ancestor’s journey from a small village in Yorkshire, England, to Utah.

Frontier Grit

Frontier Grit was born when her editor suggested she write a nonfiction book about women pioneers. Marianne looked for stories of remarkable women who didn't have a lot of name recognition, but who had done incredible things and had participated in some sort of overland journey.

“I was just blown away by the stories I found.”

Frontier Grit contains stories of women of color and all sorts of walks of life. It's a truly intersectional collection of women who were tough, hearty, fearless, and ground-breaking.

“It's so important that we fight back against the way the frontier has been conceptualized as a primarily white space. It’s factually incorrect. That is how it's been presented in books and movies for many years, and it plays into that whole manifest destiny thing…it's not an accurate representation…the American frontier was incredibly diverse, a tumultuous meeting of all these different cultures from all over the world…I wanted to expand the definition of what we mean by frontier and the word ‘pioneer’ to reclaim that word away from its roots in westward expansionism…to look at what pioneering means on a much larger level.”

I asked Marianne to elaborate on some of the women in Frontier Grit.

Aunt Clara Brown

Aunt Clara Brown
Aunt Clara Brown

Born into slavery and like so many enslaved peoples, she watched her family be sold at auction into all different directions. After she gained her freedom and migrated west to settle in Colorado, she built a laundry business working with miners in the mountain. A skilled investor, she would often accept payments as mining stakes and claims and soon became one of the wealthiest women in the west. She used that money to help formerly enslaved people move north. Demonstrating true grit and persistence, she spent her whole life looking everywhere for her beloved daughter and finally found her four years before she died.

Abigail Scott Duniway

Abigail Scott Duniway signing first Equal Suffrage Proclamation ever made by a woman. Governor Oswald West, who had signed the Proclamation is shown looking on, and acting President Dr. Viola M. Coe is standing near.
Duniway signing the first Equal Suffrage Proclamation

I have a special interest in Abigail because she is Oregon’s most famous suffragette. Her grave is just a few miles from my house, and on Election Day 2016 I organized a group of women wearing pantsuits to visit her grave site and pay homage.

Abigail traveled west as a teenager on the Oregon Trail. By the time they’d reached Oregon, her mother and youngest brother had died and the family was completely penniless. Abigail married and had six children, and when her husband became disabled, she began supporting the family as an educator, milliner, and newspaper editor. For 40 years she fiercely advocated for women’s suffrage and other rights, and in 1912 Oregon became the seventh state in the U.S. to pass a women's suffrage amendment. She was the first woman to vote in Multnomah County.

Visiting Abigail's grave on Election Day 2016
Visiting Abigail's grave on Election Day 2016, with my mom, one of my sons, friends, and sister activists

I asked Marianne about this quote by Abigail and what it means to her work:

“When women's true history shall have been written, her part in the upbuilding of this nation will astound the world.”

Marianne's response:

“The history classes I took had so few women in them…it was all about dates and wars and presidents and I received the impression that women were always in the background…but the stories that have come to light contradict that…there were a lot of remarkable individuals working in incredible ways, both directly and indirectly…the stories have been forgotten, or at least they weren't presented in any way that gave them the kind of emphasis that they deserve. It's been great to see the work that's been done to reclaim those histories and those stories.”


Makaopiopio's grave in Utah
Makaopiopio's grave in Utah

Marianne found Makaopiopio, a Latter Day Saints convert from Hawaii, the most difficult to research because she was raised in an oral society. She and her husband moved to Utah and founded a Hawaiian colony in the desert of Iosepa. Researching Makaopiopio was so difficult that her editor suggested she cut her from the book.

“I felt like it was so important to keep her…she's a reminder of all of the women who, due to a lack of literacy or in her case, primarily oral language with Native Hawaiian, their stories just don't have the same physical record. I wanted her presence in the book to represent that loss, and I think her story does that.”

Donaldina Cameron

Donaldina with some girls she rescued
Donaldina with some girls she rescued

Donaldina was an immigrant and Presbyterian missionary from New Zealand who ended up in San Francisco's Chinatown. She went to teach sewing lessons at a mission home and fell in love with the girls. She spent 40 years of her life fighting sex trafficking rings in San Francisco. Heather B. Moore just wrote a novel about Donaldina: The Paper Daughters of Chinatown, which is now certainly on my to-read list! Donaldina fought powerful groups of organized crime that would traffic Chinese women and girls. She had an uncanny ability to find where these girls were being hidden. As a deeply spiritual person, she felt like God was leading her.

Martha Hughes Cannon

In addition to featuring her in Frontier Grit, Marianne expounded on Martha Hughes Cannon's life in her most recent novel, Her Quiet Revolution. Born in Wales, Martha immigrated to Utah as a young child.

Although Martha entered a polygamous marriage, she was also one of the first Mormon feminists. I was surprised to learn that because many women were dying on the frontier, Brigham Young called for women to be trained as doctors. Martha became a frontier doctor, the first female state senator, an advocate for women’s suffrage, and a public health activist. (Marianne explains that Mormon leadership at the time advocated for women’s right to vote and be educated.)

In Marianne’s most recent book, Women of the Blue and Grey: Civil War Mothers, Medic Soldiers and Spies, she did an excellent job of sharing diverse stories, not just Black, white, and native women, but also stories from both the North and South. The book contains stories of women spies, medical workers, writers, and soldiers.

I’ve always been fascinated by stories of women dressing up as men to go to war, like in the song “The Cruel War,” which is either from the Revolutionary or the Civil War. Hundreds of women fought in the Civil War on both sides. I highly recommend you listen to this gorgeous version of the song below. Heartbreaking, it gives you a glimpse of what these women were thinking when they followed their men into war.

Harriet Tubman

I asked Marianne to tell us about women spies, and she talked about the often-overlooked story of Harriet Tubman’s spy activities. Harriet designed and helped lead the Combahee River raid, which was an incredibly remarkable and intricate event. She led 150 black Union soldiers, who were part of the U.S. 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, and liberated more than 700 enslaved people. More than 100 of those freed slaves joined the Union army.

“It's just an incredibly remarkable moment in U.S. military history, but it often gets forgotten about or overlooked.”

Dr. Mary Walker

A surgeon during the Civil War, Dr. Mary Walker fought to receive the recognition she deserved for her incredible dedication, skills, and intelligence. She was captured by the confederacy as a prisoner of war and ended up having health problems as a result of her time in prison.

She was also a pioneer for dress reform and received a lot of antagonism and several arrests for her commitment to wearing pants. When she married at age 23, she wore a short skirt with trousers underneath, refused to include "obey" in her vows, and kept her last name, astonishing for her era and a pioneer after my own heart! She had advanced ideas about women's reproductive health too and supporting victims of rape.

“If there's someone that I could meet, Dr. Mary Walker would be way near the top of the list. She always stayed true to her ideals and did a lot of writing about how important it was for women to be able to be healthy…she was an advocate for women in every way and was not treated well by her contemporaries.”

As Marianne explains in her book, the Civil War was a particularly difficult time to be Native American. The U.S. government didn’t fulfill the treaties they’d promised to the native peoples. Many Native Americans fought on either side of the war but did not receive the promised rewards for doing so.

I asked what surprised Marianne in all her research.

“I think this goes to your own work, Marie…as I started identifying the women I wanted to include, I was struck by how many women were led to their lives’ work through the process of losing almost everything. There's these intense moments of crisis they went through and they faced with tenacity….in some way it led them to what ended up becoming their overall life’s work."
Ida and Louise Cook
Ida and Louise Cook

Marianne has signed a contract for two more novels set in World War Two, with the first scheduled to come out in September. Her first book is about Ida and Louise Cook, two British sisters who used their love of opera to rescue Jews from Nazi Germany.

She was given permission to travel to Europe during the COVID pandemic to conduct her research, visiting Dachau and Munich, Germany; Austria; and Edinburgh and London in the UK.

“I'm just amazed at the women of the French Resistance and so enamored of Winston Churchill, and some of the British spies…I'm in the middle of it, down the rabbit hole.”
Marianne in suffragette gear with her husband
Marianne in suffragette gear with her husband

I shared two of my favorite World War II novels with Marianne: Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy, with interconnected stories of women all over the world in World War Two, and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, an incredible story of women’s friendship during the war.

I asked Marianne what she’s been reading and watching, and she mentioned All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and a biography about Winston Churchill. She recently watched “The Dig” on Netflix, a movie set in England on the eve of World War II, as part of her research about World War II. A woman invites an archaeologist to investigate mounds on her property and they discover a significant Anglo Saxon burial site. (Note: we just started watching "The Dig" last night, and it's excellent.)

Marianne and her husband
Marianne and her husband

Marianne is inspired by her ancestors, including a woman named Maria Susanna Merrick. She was born at Windsor Castle and married into gentry. After her baby died and the Church of England told her the baby was going to hell because it hadn’t been baptized, she found herself welcomed by Mormon missionaries. She chose to become a pioneer and crossed the ocean to settle in Utah, even resorting to sleeping in a chicken coop as she got settled.

I’m looking forward to visiting Abigail Scott Duniway’s grave with Marianne in the near future!

Next week I interview Cindy Van Arnam, who has faced a lifetime of mountains…starting when her beloved dad passed away when she was 16 years old. For 23 years, she created a ‘mountain’ in every choice she made about her life. From cocaine addiction and abusive relationships, to travelling to foreign countries without a plan – she was always seeking a way to make life hard for herself. She finally understood that she was the mountain that didn’t need to be there. Now she helps entrepreneurs fully discover their own limitless power so they can create sustainable wealth through self-mastery.

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