You may have to work a little harder than usual to find a copy of Carla Kelly’s collection of historical short stories; it’s published by a university press and not readily available in bookstores. But rest assured your efforts will not be in vain. Kelly’s stellar writing skills are enhanced by her expertise in 19th century American history, gained in part from her job as a Fort Laramie Park ranger and living history demonstrator. The resulting collection includes several short masterpieces that make a surprisingly strong impression despite their brief length.
The nine stories take place in and around various army postings in the West and Southwest during the late 1800s. Some are pure fun, a few are unabashedly romantic and several, especially the concluding story, are full of adventure and derring-do. The one item they have in common is the celebration of that era’s women, largely unsung in history, who braved the elements, toiled stoically and raised their children single-handedly while the men served their country.
Several of the stories in the collection stand out, although all nine are enjoyable. “Kathleen Flaherty’s Long Winter” is reminiscent of Kelly’s The Wedding Journey. A young widow, left destitute when her soldier husband dies suddenly, enters into a marriage of convenience with a quiet Swedish sergeant to avoid the dishonorable advances of the fort’s captain. After her boisterous Irish husband, the taciturn Gunnar Oleson is an enigma to the heroine, but the generous gesture he makes to show his true feelings after Kathleen has reached the end of her endurance is heart-rendering. In “The Gift,” a lonely captain haunted by his Civil War memories makes an effort to give the woman he loves a unique Christmas gift, but the present she receives is not the one he intended to bestow. “Mary Murphy” is a short, haunting tale of the company laundress, a woman forgotten and scorned by almost all, whose quiet strength renders her unforgettable to the story’s narrator. And the book’s finale, “Jesse MacGregor,” manages to be funny, horrifying, gory, romantic and inspiring all at the same time as an army surgeon noted primarily for his practical jokes demonstrates bravery and leadership during an Apache raid.
Several themes run through the stories. Women were scarce in frontier army settings; many soldiers left their wives back East to spare them the hardships. The women who did venture West found harsh weather and long stretches of loneliness while their husbands were sent on off-base assignments. The true dangers were from isolation, tediousness and difficult living conditions, not attack from Indian “hostiles.”
Another surprising issue was the lasting effect of the Civil War. Of course nobody was talking about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in 1880, but some of the book’s former soldiers appeared to be suffering from PTSD symptoms. Staying in the army was probably preferable to assimilating back into a society in which they no longer felt comfortable.
Throughout the stories, Kelly’s economic but heartfelt prose gives life to the characters, even if you spend only 10 pages with some of them. Kelly shows you the real people behind the history, yet the nobility of these everyday heroes is inspiring. If you are at all a Carla Kelly fan or a scholar of American history, you owe it to yourself to track down Here’s to the Ladies. Its stories made me proud to be an American – and a human being.