Letters from YellowstoneBy Diane SmithViking, $23.95ISBN 0670886319Review by Carolyn PorterConstructed as a series of letters and set in the majestic surroundings of the American West with its big open sky of opportunity, Letters from Yellowstone tells the story of a young medical student, Alexandria Bartram. Mistakenly assumed to be a boy by the professor in charge of a scientific expedition, she sets off for Mammoth Hot Springs, Montana, to aid the expedition and follow her passion for botany. Once the scientists learn to accept a feminine presence in camp, Alex begins to form relationships and connections with people and nature that further her self-worth and individuality.
Yet this is not simply the trite tale of a girl striking off on a journey who, in the process, grows up. It is a coming of age novel, but since it is told from many perspectives, a unique voice emerges to show what it means to be human, to grow up. At first Alex is overcome by the beauty of the landscape. She observes upon first viewing Yellowstone, It is as though I have traveled back in time, to the very edge of the universe, where the earth, still in its most primordial stage, sputters and bubbles and spews out the very origins of life. This childlike wonder soon turns to respect for the amazing splendor of this natural world, respect for the soul of man, and in turn respect for whatever force Alex believes created it all.
Colorful characters pepper this first novel. Professor Howard Merriam, a gentle, flustered man with spectacles; Joseph, a Crow Indian; the misogynistic driver; Dr. Rutherford and his pet raven; wise Mrs. Eversman, the birdwatcher all add spice to Alex's adventure. She learns something from each of them, and above all learns to be open-minded to all perspectives of life.
Smith concludes with a rather existential theme: People should follow their own unique purpose in life, whatever that may be according to their world view. We must each take charge of our own beliefs, yet always accept the opinions of others. In the end, Alex remarks, I am beginning to see that I need to learn how to recognize what is good and kind and true in each individual's view of the world. And with this realization, she is grown-up.