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Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman

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The astonishing first-person account of a Mississippi pioneer woman struggling to survive, protect her family and make a home in the early American South.

Near the end of her life, Mary Mann Hamilton (1866-1936) began recording her experiences in the backwoods of the Mississippi Delta. The result is this astonishing first-person account of a pioneer woman who braved grueling work, profound tragedy, and a pitiless wilderness (she and her family faced floods, tornadoes, fires, bears, panthers, and snakes) to protect her home in the early American South.

An early draft of Trials of the Earth was submitted to a writers' competition sponsored by Little, Brown in 1933. It didn't win, and we almost lost the chance to bring this raw, vivid narrative to readers. Eighty-three years later, in partnership with Mary Mann Hamilton's descendants, we're proud to share this irreplaceable piece of American history. Written in spare, rich prose, Trials of the Earth is a precious record of one woman's extraordinary endurance and courage that will resonate with readers of history and fiction alike.

318 pages, Hardcover

First published October 1, 1992

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About the author

Mary Mann Hamilton

2 books20 followers
1866 - c.1936

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Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,686 reviews14k followers
October 25, 2016
Mary Hamilton is a truly remarkable woman, not well known, not famous but remarkable all the same. So glad her story has at last been published. One of the first women to homestead in the Mississippi Delta, was there when the Parchment prison system was started. My goodness but this woman lived what seems like many lives. Worked to incredibly hard, first feeding many in the camps, then the fields, bore seven children, though all did not live, picked, built, canned, sewed, anything to insure the survival of her family. I am almost ashamed to say she did more in one day than I probably do in a month. Was tired just reading about her day.

All she ever wanted was a home, but she only had home of her own for a few years. She and her husband needed to go where the work was, her husband not in the best health, they often picked up and moved, from one property to another. Often lonely, her husband working, no other woman close by, her children became her solace and joy.

"whether I was sewing, working in the garden, cooking, milking,
tending my chickens, or helping the children hoe, my mind was
always with them. And watching them at times like that gave me
a thrill. They were my flower garden in my hard years of toil and
loneliness. As each child was born it was a flower added to my garden,
each a new kind, each needing different care."

So beautiful, told in her own words, this is a special story written and told by a very special person. It was a joy to read about her and her life. Not easy, often stress laden, sadness and joy but an honorable and honest life lived to the fullest.

Profile Image for Howard.
318 reviews223 followers
April 28, 2019

Mary Mann Hamilton wrote only one book, but even though she and her book are virtually forgotten, they both deserve to be remembered.

One of my favorite novels of last year – or any year, for that matter – was "The Tall Woman" by Wilma Dykeman. Set in the Appalachians in North Carolina it is the story of one woman’s struggle to cope with the trials and tribulations of a pioneer woman during the Civil War and its aftermath.

Recently, I finished "Trials of the Earth" about another pioneer woman and I was struck by the similarities between the two stories. However, there is one big difference: "Trials of the Earth" is not fiction.

It is rather amazing that it was ever published. The book’s serendipitous path to publication began in the early ‘30’s when a young Mississippi writer, Helen Dick Davis, first met Mary Mann Hamilton (1866-ca. 1936), who was living nearby in her daughter’s home. After they became friends, Davis became enthralled by the stories that the older woman told her about her life as a pioneer wife and mother who spent many years cooking for boarding houses located in lumber camps in the Mississippi Delta.

Davis encouraged Hamilton to write down what she remembered about those experiences. At first Hamilton resisted but eventually relented and became obsessed with getting it all down on paper.

In the preface to the manuscript Davis wrote in 1933:

When I began to beg her to write down the account of her life, if only as a record for her children and grandchildren, she did it just to please me. She wrote it piecemeal at first, just scattered experiences, ten or fifteen pages at a time written with pencil on cheap tablet paper; stories of terrible floodwaters, cyclones, feuds to the death, escaped Negro convicts….

By spring of 1933 Mary Hamilton had given me 150,000 words on this book. I have edited it, worked over it with her, and guided her in her choice of material, but I have in no case added to nor changed what she wrote….

I want to reassure the reader that my presence does not enter the book. I have not touched her style, nor embellished her material. It is a direct and simple autobiography.

Despite what Davis wrote, her editing task was monumental. Hamilton had received practically no education and her spelling, grammar, and punctuation had to be corrected in order to make the manuscript readable. But Hamilton’s voice comes through clearly; the storytelling is unpolished and unvarnished.

After my morning work of milking, churning, cleaning house, getting dinner and supper at one time, and cutting a dress for someone, I would help the children in the field all afternoon. Then I would come in at sundown and milk, while Leslie [her young daughter] finished supper…. After we ate supper…while the children did the dishes, I started making a dress I had cut out that morning, and I never got up from the machine till that dress was finished. Everyone I made meant a dollar cash…. I would make a dollar sewing almost every day.

Accidents, illness, and death were ever present in Mary Hamilton’s life. And so were tornadoes, fires, panthers, bears, snakes, and even escaped convicts – and floods. There is a harrowing account of her being trapped in a flood when the nearby Sunflower River overflowed its levee.

She found herself stranded with her small daughter and two month old baby on top of a stump located on a ridge with the rain coming down and the flood waters rising rapidly.

It was midafternoon, and the water was up over the stump, lapping my feet. The old tree that I had been so afraid of in the morning was still standing. Now I prayed it would fall on us, kill all three of us at once and end this suspense. About that time I saw the top kind of quiver. I shut my eyes, clutched my children tight, and to myself said, “Thank God.” It came down with a crash; cold water poured over us. I opened my eyes. It had missed us by a few feet….

Of course, I was glad it had missed us but disappointed to be facing again this slow sure death. I could see no possible hope….

…[T]he only prayer I could think of to ask God was to let them die first so I could take care of them to the end.

There is even a mystery at the heart of Mary Hamilton’s account of the struggles and adversity that she and her family faced. I’m not going to give that away. But her dedication written in the front of the book serves as a teaser:

"To my husband’s people
whoever they are,
and wherever they may be"

The book was rejected by Little, Brown in 1933. It resurfaced in the early ‘90’s when it was published by the University of Mississippi Press, but without the permission of Hamilton’s heirs. After the heirs regained the rights to the book, and eighty-three years after initially rejecting it, Little, Brown published it.

Finally, this:

A reviewer wrote in the New York Times that Mary Hamilton “was a fairly ordinary woman, but one whom necessity and native grit teased to a grand self-possession and authority.”

The hell, you say. This was no ordinary woman; this was one tall woman.
Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,366 reviews1,413 followers
July 3, 2017
Trials of the Earth is Mary Mann Hamilton's memoir about her hardscrabble life in America during the late 1800's.

She uses period speech to illuminate a life of struggle and hard work. If certain anachronistic and racially insensitive terms bother you, especially the casual use of the N-word, you may want to chose another memoir. It was shocking but I kept reminding myself that Mary was a product of her times.

On top of the constant struggle of putting food on the table and keeping a roof over her head, it seems like she was perpetually pregnant and her husband was an alcoholic.

But Mary lived up to the challenges, raised and buried children, nursed her husband through his hangovers and illnesses- she was a survivor. That is mainly what Trials of the Earth was to me- a survival story.

"Nevertheless, this is not a book of repining; it is a tale simply told of what one woman has lived through in the Mississippi Delta. I say 'lived through' because at times this history reads like a record of the extreme limits of human endurance." loc 75, introduction

So many of the modern conveniences that we take for granted didn't exist. Mary moved around a lot and notes with relief every time her husband manages to install a pump in her new house so that she didn't have to haul water from the river.

Mary's relationship with her husband, Frank, isn't a fair deal. She is a very young woman when she gets married and from the start he's controlling- telling her what they will eat and what friends they will have. He even tells her what books she can read.

That would have been the last straw for me. But again, she was a woman of her times.

"To me he seemed like a man that had taken a silly child to raise rather than a wife. ... As time went on I found there were plenty other things I didn't know, too. The first thing I found out was that he drank." loc 226, ebook.

In addition to the inequality in their relationship, Frank is from England and has a secret past. He won't tell Mary, his own wife, his real name or talk about his circumstances or the family he left behind. But, Mary doesn't let it bother her too much. I suppose she was too busy with everything else they had going on. That lack of trust would have driven me bonkers.

Not that she felt like anything was wrong with their relationship. "Women can stand more work, more trouble, and more religion than men." loc 528, ebook. She accepted the hardships because she knew that she could. I admire her gumption but I also felt sad for her too. I felt sad because she didn't have the option to live any other sort of life.

Frank is always talking about the sin of Eve and all the baggage that comes with it to Mary. There is a lot of mansplaining that goes on too. Parts of this book were infuriating to me.

Recommended for readers who enjoy memoirs that read like historical fiction. Ability to tolerate the bleak role that women occupied in society in the late 1800's is a must.

Thank you to NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company for a free advance reader's copy of this book. Reminder: some of the quotations in this review may change in the final printed copy.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,210 reviews453 followers
August 28, 2016
This book is not one of those lyrical, beautifully written family sagas. It is more of a I was there, this is what I saw and heard, this is what happened kind of book. Still, it is beautiful for that very reason. Mary Mann married at 18 to Frank Hamilton, an English man running from something in his past. He never told her what or why. They married in Arkansas and moved to the Mississippi Delta region in the late 1800's. Hard work and deprivation was a given, as was saying good-bye to people and never seeing them again. Death seemed to be waiting around every corner. This woman had 9 children, lost the first 4, then raised 5 more to adulthood. She worked hard every day of her life, never really had a home of her own, cooked and sewed for others to make ends meet, and still managed to keep a happy spirit and good outlook, even when misfortunes arose. She wrote this account in 1933 when a friend convinced her to get it all down for her children. It has just now been published through the efforts of her family and friends. This woman had near total recall of events, conversations and people from her past. The acknowledgements indicate that there is some interest in making it into a film; I think it would have to be a television series to get it all told. My favorite character was her daughter Leslie, who learned to cuss at the age of 4 and never could be cured of it. She said it was the only way she could get people to listen to her.

Mary was quite a woman, and she has told quite a story. It deserves to be heard.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,680 reviews203 followers
December 2, 2019
Trials of the Earth is the autobiography of Mary Mann Hamilton, born in Arkansas around 1866. Her family ran a boarding house, where she met and married one of the guests, an Englishman with a mysterious past. After marrying, she and husband Frank moved to Missouri and then to Mississippi, where the majority of the story is set. They lived and worked near logging camps, and later switched to farming.

I value this book for its historical significance. It is a time capsule of sorts and would make excellent reference material for those writing historical fiction about the era to get a feel for what life was truly like. And life was hard: hauling water, time-consuming constant cooking, building your own house, dealing with storms, floods, fires, wild animals (panthers, wolves, feral pigs), eating squirrels and bear meat. It was a common occurrence for babies and young children to die. Accidents and disease were commonplace. Doctors lived far away and sometimes did more harm than good, and there were few ways to communicate with anyone.

This memoir provides a picture of a pioneering life in the deep south about 30 to 40 years after the American civil war ended. It is reflective of the time and place, so expect to encounter racism, racial slurs, ethnic stereotyping, and then-common physical disciplining of children. Hamilton makes many generic pronouncements of her opinions stated as facts.

Contrary to the blurb, I found the writing lacking. Hamilton focuses on what happened, but little on why or how she felt about it. The style is blunt, rambling, and full of superfluous details. Having said that, I feel I should not be too hard on this author, since she never set out to be a writer and had a limited education. She was convinced by a friend to write her memories down, which she did in 1933, close to the end of her life. This book was published posthumously in 1992.
Profile Image for Jessaka.
853 reviews100 followers
August 22, 2019
Trials of the Earth by Maary Hamilton

Today seems like a great day to write a review for this book,, because it is pouring down rain, and in just a few hours we have already had 4 inches of rain. So, I don’t see myself going outside since our book group has been cancelled due to flooding.

Our rain is much like the rain that Mary Hamilton had experienced while living in the Mississippi Delta. It caused her home to be flooded and destroyed. Only the rain she experienced lasted more than a few hours, which is not what I expect our rain to do.

This was Mary Hamilton’s autobiography, beginning from the time she married Frank Hamilton to her old age. While she outlived her husband, she never talked about her children’s lives after they were grown.

When living in the Mississippi Delta, her husband was a logger, and they lived in a house next to the river. What? When the rains came, and the waters rose, I couldn’t help but think of the wise man who built his house upon the rock, for as the rains came, she and her children, who were alone at that time, became trapped.

Due to her ability to write really well, she was able to turn her life into an adventure, although she would not have considered it an adventure at the time. So the story of her house being under water was quite interesting.

Since we live on a hill with very rocky soil, I don’t worry much about flooding, not that we were like the wise man; It just happened that way. So, as I said, I don’t worry much about flooding, although one weekend we had 9 inches of rain, the field next to us, was flooded, even covering our roto tiller with about a foot of water. My blackberry bushes also stood in water and never came back even though they love water, just not that much.

There are other stories like this in her book, but her life was only excitiing in parts of her book, and in the beginning it was so slow paced, that I almost gave up on it. Still, I knew that there had to be something to it causeed someone she knew to encourage her to write it all down.

She lived back in the 1860s when America was raw, and pioneers were still moving west. Her husband moved them around as well, going back and forth to Missouri, Arkansas, and Mississippi. At this time her husband was working at a logging company, and she worked as a cook for thosse loggers.

Then when they moved, she she made dresses for neighbors, making a dollar per dress. Opefull, tey provided te material and the thread. Then after moving again, she and her eihildren picked cotton.

None of this appeals to me as I would find it rather grueling since I don’t like repetitive work. I tried making crafts at one time along wit my friend, Mimi, wo then wanted me to make them to sell. I was already bored, so I passed.

Mary never complained, so perhaps she liked her life. Or perhaps she just didn’t wis to complain in her book.

Then they once lived by a prison, but that was short lived, because they didn’t wish for their children to grow up in that environment. Whenever a prisoner escaped, the children sometimes saw what happened to the men when they were captured.

When I was just out of high school, I moved to Vacaville, CA and lived alone in a small run down house near the Vacaville Prison. Not aving a car, I used to walk by the prisoners working in the fields when I was going to work as a car hop at the A&W Root Beer Stand. The prisoners all stared at me, and I was glad that they had shackles on their legs.

Then one day my boss sowed up at my ouse, and my husband to be was there. They took it that we were sleeping together, but we were not! Then they called my parents and told tem that I lived near te dangerous prison, and then they fired me. Ah, tose were the days!

Back to the book: At another time, Mary’s husband had moved them to the woods in Arkansas, and during this time her children played in those woods. One day some wild boars saw them and chased them up a tree, but it didn’t end there as this horrifying story with the boars continued. After their rescue, their parents still allowed them to play in the woods. Such was life back then. Parents did not try to protect their children as much as they do today. She didn’t mention being worried about them playing in the woods again, but I would have been beside myself. Still, I prefer the freedom that I had in my own childhood, as I roamed all over our small town, and I walked with my do to the river and the hills.

If my mother only knew of the times my siblings and I were almost killed, she may have worried about us too, as if she hadn’t worried too much about us anyway.

For examples: I had once saved my little sister from drowned, a friend of my brother’s saved him from drowning in a reservoir. Then there was the time that I was standing on the edge of a ravine pressing on the lip of the ravine, causing basketball-size pieces of dirt to fall into it.e. Of course, back th[]]]]]]]]]=en I never saw the danger of doing this. What would have happened if a much larger piece had broken off with me on it? And that is just a few of the dangers we managed to get ourselves into when we were kids.

What bothered me most about this book was how a few of Mary’s children died at a young age, not making it even to their teenage years. After one of her sons had died, one of her daughters wanted to go to heaven to be with him.

If any one of us had died when we were young, I can’t imagine that any one of us would have wanted to go to heaven to be with our so-called loved one. My older, whom I dearly love no, used to tell me to go play in the freeway, if not that, he would tell me to take a long walk on a short pier.

When my older brother moved out, I was excited because I got to have his bedroom, which I had coveted forever. It was a screened-in sleeping porch. And when I moved, my younger sister got my room and two of my Lanz dresses. She ruined tose dresses, which had actually be hand me downs frm my older sister. Still, they were ruined, and I was upset!!

I am sure that everyone in my family is glad that I didn’t take my brother’s dvice to play in the freeway evem though they had not wished to go to heaven with me had I fallen off that cliff.

I felt that Mary’s life was too hard. I would not have wished to have lived it, but maybe she enjoyed cooking for a large group of men, and perhaps she loved sewing every day, all day long. And maybe she found her life to be quite an adventure. If nothing else, she really enjoyed her children and felt them to be very precious to her. Perhaps, she just took life as it cme, and maybe many of us do the same. There were not many choices in the old west if you were a pioneer and didn’t live in town. That may even be true today.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,162 reviews541 followers
December 6, 2020
This is the caliber of book that I appreciate the most, and I'm grateful for my GR friends, two especially, who lead me to this non-fiction of Mary Hamilton recounting her married years in the late 19th and earliest 20th centuries.

She marries from circumstance, and her life for 30 years follows from circumstance. Her husband is described to every inch of grabbing the essence of his spirit, mind, and every emotive peculiarity. From Arkansas hill backs to Mississippi Delta flats and back. Regardless of their making a living by boardering, timbering, farming, or stave carpentering transport and more, the goal of her having her own home! It seemed to me once she gave it up as lost, she became happier.

But it is far, far more. Not just a sad or bad times tale. It's told in an authentic voice. To the work. To the land shapes and situations. To the health or not. To the people of close situation every day, be they only 5 or be they 40 or more. To the faith of God, or to the others' faiths. And never apart from the language and cadence of her own speech habits and expressions.

Especially loved are her descriptions of her children from their birth days and circumstance. All different. So different. And how she explains outcomes and those differences to herself and her time.

But her spirit, what she calls "grit"- her capacity for good intent and to try harder. This glowed in her words. Years and years ago I read an anthology of pioneer women's stories of the Oregon Trail, and this is the only journal of such length that I ever come across that equates. But deeper, if possible. And the same feature- never being entirely overcome by the losses. Terrible and traumatic and because of others- not possible for her to stay down for long.

That people had such encompassing care of others at certain times for seasons! Or could carry water and cook for so many with such base staples for months and months.

And I can vouch that children worked and were given such freedoms of movement AND duty. I remember myself in an opposite environment, that was true. It's not an exaggeration. Cognition for that and the abilities it developed, were so altered from this present's "childhood" definitions.

As a reader of this life, I would have loved to read of the ten years after this ends. I know I should be satisfied in the length it holds and of such authentic detail, but I would love to hear about her adjustments to the singleton. They are immense.

Strongly recommend this read which puts you into an American life, mind, worldview which is shaped by a strong structure of Faith in seeing each other again in an easier place.

Lastly, I will remember parts of this book as long as I can remember. Her sitting on that stump with those two children as the water rose! Because I have been in tornadoes as bad, more than once and with multiple children- that scoured memory- most particularly for the mindset and conversation in that physical observations and perceptions of "time length" to those spaces of water! I will not forget that episode, nor the Oswald related event- not her disciplining methods either. Those kinds of moments in crisis cut clear as in stone; I find they do come back to memory with strong emotive connection in age.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,650 reviews1,486 followers
November 11, 2016
My reaction to this book is somewhere between liking it and thinking it was OK. I will explain why.

I am glad the book has been published, now 83 years after its conception and through the efforts of the author's descendants. Its value lies in providing a record of the author's memories as a female pioneer in Arkansas and on the Mississippi Delta in the late 1800s. She was born in 1866. Her life illustrates not just her incredibly hard life but also the lives of other women of that time and place.

At the prodding of a friend in the 1930s, the elderly author agreed to write out her memories. That manuscript was not accepted for publication. Only now in 2016 has it been “rediscovered” and published. We are told that there had existed a secret diary, but in the text the diary is not referred to and the book does not read as a collection of diary entries. We are told the words have not been changed, but that parts have been cut. Now that it has been published proper editing could have improved it. Dates and places are difficult to pinpoint. National events are not mentioned. Mary doesn't seem to know anything beyond that outside her own life. Supplementing the lines with additional dates, naming larger cities near the small towns mentioned and perhaps adding some historical content would have improved the book.

What we are told is put forth in an extremely straightforward manner. We read the events of Mary’s life in her words, one event after the other in rapid succession. There is little contemplation and little about Mary’s emotional response to the events. She never complains. What is delivered is simply a record of the events of a pioneer woman’s life in the South. The writing is factual, to the extent we can rely on what is told us, but it is not lyrical, perceptive or artistically written. The GR book description states the writing is "conveyed in frank and expressive prose by a natural-born writer." Really, that is over doing the praise! The author does speak frankly, but not expressively and she is no "natural-born writer"!

Mary’s life is filled with one arduous ordeal after another. Is her life exceptional? Deaths of infants and children, incompetent doctors, accidents, fires, floods, tornadoes and work, incessant work. While there is no denying that the life described is eventful I don’t feel her hardships were worse than many other pioneer women’s lives. They all had very difficult lives and it is for this reason the book is interesting. We have a hard time conceiving of lives such as theirs. Does she give up? Does she complain? Never. We watch love grow between husband and wife. We observe her love for her children. We do learn about her.

Much of her husband’s earlier life before they married, her as a teen and he thirty, is and remains an unsolved mystery. We learn tidbits as Mary learns more and more of his previous life. He is from an ancient English family, had lived in India and knows five languages, but there is much we never learn and much that remains unresolved for Mary too. Their reciprocal love had been enough for Mary, but with age she seems to reconsider. Her children might benefit if more were discovered. By writing the book more might come to light, and so the book was born and now it is published.

The audiobook narration by Barbara Benjamin Creel was easy to follow.

Profile Image for ``Laurie.
195 reviews
May 29, 2021
I read this book over 15 years ago so my memory is a little vague about some parts of it but I do remember being enthralled by Mary Mann Hamilton's true account of pioneer life in the Mississippi Delta.

Before the Delta became famous for its fertile, cotton growing soil it was a dense wooded forest that took several years to clear.

The Hamilton's were of humble means and hoped to improve their life by moving to the delta where Mr. Hamilton worked felling the huge trees. Mrs. Hamilton brings all the misery she and her family suffered to life while telling of the endless bugs, mosquitoes and snakes; a lot of snakes, bless her heart. No air conditioning either so I bonded with this poor woman and her suffering.

Mrs. Hamilton was a very down to earth woman dedicated to her home and family and never pitied herself as she went about her day to day life. A true pioneer in all ways that never gave up no matter how unbelievably horrible her circumstances were.

These are the pertinent details that I took away from reading this classic many years ago and I think many of you will find fascinating to read as well.
Profile Image for Susan.
1,062 reviews200 followers
November 2, 2017
A memoir about a woman who lived a tough life at the end of the nineteenth century. She had and lost a lot of babies. She helped support her alcoholic husband by cooking for lots of men in boarding houses. I liked this part as my grandmother was a cook at a boarding house in the oil fields after her first husband died. This woman worked her fingers to the bone and dealt with a lot of tragedy. I am glad I live when I do now. Life is so much easier.
Profile Image for Molly.
83 reviews1 follower
September 29, 2016
I don't think I would have chosen this book on my own but I heard a review of it on Fresh Air and I knew I had to read it. Maureen Corrigan's article describes it better than I ever could: http://www.npr.org/2016/08/15/4868880...
I listened to the audiobook version and it was very good. Mary's grit and determination made an impression on me, and her plain-spoken yet eloquently-told life story is sure to linger in my thoughts for quite some time.
Profile Image for Jo.
182 reviews10 followers
August 20, 2016
An entertaining, unique read that left me wanting several things, the first being a simple map. Easily rectified by pulling one up online, but, still ...
Next: images, which seem to be strangely lacking online, considering the enormous interest in the book.
Finally (and foremost), a solution to the mystery surrounding Frank's background. As with maps and images, the internet is swarming with geneaology sites, so I'm left wondering why readers aren't given details on what may have been discovered re Frank Hamilton's heritage in an epilogue.
Profile Image for Judi.
270 reviews5 followers
September 15, 2016
Trials of the Earth is the story of a remarkable woman who was a pioneer and early settler in the south. Encouraged to write this book as she neared the end of her life, Mary Mann Hamilton shares with the reader her story of survival through the deaths of children, floods, tornadoes, and all of the pain and hardship that a woman would deal with during that time. Also, throughout the book, is the thread of who her husband really is, where did he come from, and why don't he ever discuss it. This is a beautifully written book, and I highly recommend it.
291 reviews
September 21, 2016
I realize this is autobiographical, but it was a bit too far out there for me. Reading about the hardships and life as a pioneer was interesting, but it seemed to cross over to ridiculousness the number of times this family cycled between wealth and neediness. Never being able to make sound decisions to break the cycle. Most unbelievable was the dialog from the children who acted clairvoyant the majority of the time. It is staggering to learn how people lived during these times, but this book still feels awkward.
Profile Image for Charles Haywood.
488 reviews676 followers
July 20, 2016
St. Paul says in Second Thessalonians (or as Donald Trump would have it, “Two Thessalonians”), “if any would not work, neither should he eat.” This seems old-fashioned, even unfair to some. But not so long ago, what St. Paul said was literally true for most Americans, and merely an accepted fact of life, not an imposition by society. “Trials Of The Earth” is a vivid reminder of that time, and a chronicle of human strength and self-reliance in response.

“Trials Of The Earth” is quite similar in the facts of the life it relates to the fictional “Growth of the Soil,” by Knut Hamsun, which won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920. That book is about a Norwegian farmer who similarly ground out an existence in a remote and hostile location (and it was unfortunately admired by the Nazis, with their “blood and soil” fixation). This book is not fiction, and does not even seem remotely embellished. We easily forget that this is how millions of people in our own country used to live, unaware, for better or worse, of Pokemon Go.

It’s nearly impossible to do justice to this book in a summary. You really have to read it to grasp it (and you should). In brief, though, it’s a partial autobiography of Mary Mann Hamilton (1866-1937), one of the early settlers of the Mississippi Delta, which was then (around 1890) essentially an untamed jungle-like wilderness. Hamilton, born in Missouri, moved to Arkansas with her mother and father in her mid-teens. There she married a somewhat older Englishman, Frank Hamilton, who worked in what amounted to logging supervision and related money making, such as running boardinghouses. They shortly moved to Mississippi, where they mostly remained.

The book is a chronicle of hardship—but that’s not the way Mary Hamilton saw it. The hardship consisted in both hard work and frequent tragedy. The work was extremely grueling, to a degree nearly inconceivable to the modern American. Hamilton is matter-of-fact about it, but for years on end she seems to have gone to bed around 1:00 and gotten up at 4:00, cooking by hand for fifty to a hundred men, keeping a household with multiple children, and also working in the fields. Accompanying this was tragedy: four of her eight children died young, including one at age five by gruesome strychnine poisoning caused by an incompetent doctor. Her mother, father, and several brothers also died relatively young. Through all this, Hamilton seems to have been mostly quite happy overall. In fact, while the book ends about 1914, with her husband’s death, she was writing in the early 1930s, and she makes some side comments about how much harder life is at the time she’s writing. Why, precisely, she does not say.

What gives the book additional structure, and frankly makes it more bearable in some ways, is the mystery of Hamilton’s husband. He was apparently of a noble family in England, a fourth son and thus not eligible for inheritance, who after soldiering in India had had some kind of falling out with his family. But he was very mysterious about it, and her own lack of knowledge about her husband clearly was the greatest lack in Hamilton’s life (in fact, she dedicated the book “To my husband’s people, whoever they are and wherever they may be”). Hamilton’s frequent thoughts about this topic, and her husband’s occasional dribbles of information, form the spine of the book, which might otherwise overwhelm the reader as a chronicle of endless hard work and loss. (It seems to me that, if what Frank Hamilton told his wife was accurate, and she accurately recorded it, in these days of Internet genealogy research, it might be possible to find “my husband’s people.” On some genealogy websites, there is a picture of him, presumably put up by a relative. Finding his family and fleshing out his story would certainly be fascinating.)

One interesting thing about the book is that it is very much not a Horatio Alger story. The American mythos, with much historical basis in reality, is that of social mobility. Maybe the South is different, but there is not a hint in Mary Hamilton’s book of the ability to change one’s social status. The social milieu seems more medieval—each person in his place, and God in his heaven. Black people at the bottom, rich landowners at the top, with each person content with his lot and striving merely to make his position more comfortable. Such broad contentment seems unlikely—more likely there was a lot of social resentment, and since Hamilton herself was not prone to resentment, she didn’t ascribe it to others. That’s not to say she didn’t have conflicts with her neighbors—one rich neighbor stole much of their land through a suborned survey, and another tried to get a murder pinned on Frank. So it’s not that Hamilton was a Pollyanna, merely that she viewed hard work as the lot of man and woman, and social climbing not as a goal.

It is, of course, a constant human tendency to idealize the past and criticize the present. The trick, of course, is to not romanticize the past or be overly negative about the present, while still realizing that it is entirely possible that the past was better in some, or many, ways than the present. “Trials Of The Earth” shows both. None of us would want to return to the lives of toil and loss lived by these people—but we, individually and as a society, could certainly use Mary Hamilton’s grit, self-reliance and can-do attitude.
Profile Image for Marika.
385 reviews42 followers
March 3, 2016
Mary Mann Hamilton (1866-c.1936) was encouraged to write down her memories of being a female pioneer in the Mississippi Delta. She writes in her own voice about a life that modern day readers have no concept of, and might even find a bit fabricated but it's all true. From a manuscript that surfaced more than a half century after it was written, this book has been published before (1992, 2013) but is just now getting the attention that it deserves. Mary writes about living in Arkansas in the early 1880s, when as a teen she met and was forced to marry mysterious Englishman, Frank Hamilton who was an alcoholic 12 years older than her. Mary had a unrelenting, hard life as camp cook for lumberjacks who were clearing the wild Mississippi Delta before it was settled. Floods, infant deaths, betrayals, no electricity or running water and living off the land made for an arduous life and one that is fascinating to read. Her husband Frank supposedly came from an upper-class English family but refused to speak of his past or allow his children to claim their possible foreign inheritance. fascinating read of American history.
Note: I received a free review copy of this book and was not compensated for it.
Profile Image for Skyqueen.
270 reviews51 followers
October 22, 2016
Totally mesmerizing! One scene was SO gripping, my heart nearly stopped!!! It STILL does when I think about it! The 'translators' did a remarkable job of taking the raw script into a flowing narrative without losing the naturalness or uniqueness of place and time. Absolutely puts you in the early pioneer hardships of weather, adequate food, shelter, and never-ending, universal crime...just basic survival to the exclusion of much leisure or down time. Death from a myriad of freak occurrences always not far away. Really makes you appreciate the conveniences and small things we take for granted today.
I found this book in the seatback pocket on an American Eagle flight and I'm so glad I did. I tried to get it back to the owner who had a sales receipt from a bookstore in Alabama/Mississippi/? ...can't remember. I hope they were able to find another copy. I will be glad to return.
Profile Image for Belle Blackburn.
Author 3 books72 followers
November 28, 2016
This is Mary's story, of her hardscrabble life and how she survived, endured and found joy in plain living. This is not a lyrical novel studded with poetic prose, just her life as she remembered it ("just the facts, ma'am"). I find her descriptions of everyday living and chores fascinating, and I enjoyed getting to know her children. She is a more patient woman than me in many ways, but I could never have put up with not knowing my husband's background. I would have had to fish that out at some point. There was practically nothing this woman could not do, from farming to logging to birthing animals and humans, and she did not hesitate to put a rifle in someone's face if need be. She is the embodiment of self sufficiency.
Profile Image for Karen Oury.
24 reviews3 followers
March 20, 2018
Trials of the Earth: The true story of a Pioneer Woman

This Mary Ann Hamilton is a remnant of a bygone era. A woman of true grit, loyal to the core of her being, to her husband and children. A hard working woman of faith and values, who pushes on thru hardships & death. A "can do" , rise above woman that her descendants can be very proud
to claim as their ancestor who helped pave the way. A good read that shows todays women how easy we have it.
Profile Image for Karl Wiggins.
Author 28 books299 followers
February 10, 2019
Should be ranked with ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ ‘Huck Finn’ and ‘Great Gatsby’as showing the culture of the United States at a ‘specific’ era in the nation’s history

This wonderful book is full of words of wisdom;

“I always looked for friends and not for trouble. Trouble was something I found without looking for it.”

“Women can stand more work, more trouble, and more religion than men.”

“I got my idea right there to raise my children to believe they were a necessary part of the home – not to drive them to work, but to make each one believe that without him and his work, home would soon go to pieces. And all my children loved their home more than any place on earth.”

But on top of that I was awed by the wisdom, common sense and maturity of two of Mary’s children, Nina and Leslie. I lost track of how many children Mary gave birth to – or how many she lost - but Nina in particular (spoiler alert) who very calmly predicted her own death at a very early age, even though there was nothing physically wrong with her, and Leslie, who at times appeared more mature than her mother. Mary, of course, often predicted tragic events by dreaming about them the previous night.

Despite all the adversity, hardship and calamities there is humour in the book. Aunt Lizzie, a negro woman who helped the family pick cotton, comes to the assistance of little Frankie who was being chased by a hog, which was sure to kill him; “Shoot, Frankie. If you let dat Hawg kill you I’m gwine beat you, boy. Shoot.”

The book describes amazing hardships, Mary being forced to work and hold down a family, not to mention the proximity of howling wolves, bears, screaming panthers and escaped convicts from the nearby Parchman Farm. The kids, boys and girls alike, were taught to box, to keep their bodies athletic, to shoot a gun and to pray. They weren’t afraid of the convicts but to be on the safe side all of the kids were taught to shoot a gun before they were six years old. Mary explains; “Some would think we were wrong for letting them run such risks, be in so much danger, but we couldn’t see it that way; we thought it not half as dangerous as running around over the country with bad companions, getting into trouble that they couldn’t get out of by climbing a tree. All of my children were honest and full of fun.”

I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to my own life. When the banks of the river burst in a storm and their house is under water up to the roof, Mary’s husband, Frank, finds a tree stump six feet high, and places Mary, Nina and the baby up there while he takes two of the other kids in the boat and goes to get help. The storm continues, the rain never lets up, the water rises to within four inches of the top of the stump, mice, snakes and a bear swim past, there are thousand-legged bugs all over the place and they can hear trees falling all around them, and that’s how they stay for the best part of 12 hours. Meanwhile the cover has come off our bar-b-que in the garden and is blowing all over the place. I need to go out and wrap it around the BBQ and secure it with bungee cord, but it’s raining, and I just don’t fancy it. I think I need a touch of Mary Mann Hamilton’s grit.

I won’t soon be forgetting this book
Profile Image for Tina.
723 reviews41 followers
July 24, 2018
I was not expecting this. First of all, I didn’t realize it was an autobiography (a polished autobiography) and I also didn’t realize it was going to be so goddamn fantastic.

Anyone who is whining about their life being so hard should just sit down and read this. I’m not invalidating anyone’s issues, of course, but this book really puts things in perspective in the lens of "first world problems". Married at 17 (out of a debt) to a man she barely knows, multiple stillbirths, child deaths, harrowing experiences in the wild, loneliness, backbreaking labour … most of it while she was pregnant. It makes you really appreciate the things in life we take for granted – not just medicine, but even something simple like Tylenol (for when babies get fevers, etc) or running water (let alone engines, wifi, etc etc) makes our lives so much easier. I bet she would laugh her ass off today at women who won't eat bacon (or other nonsense) when they're pregnant or at people who complain about working a 10 hour shift.

She was an amazing woman. I love books about people having to build up their lives from nothing in the woods, and this book gives you tons of that. I couldn’t put it down. She goes through some crazy shit, so much that I kept telling my husband what was happening and he thought it was fiction. And the way she bounces back from tragedies - really shows you how strong a person can be.

Some things to note – this was written in the 1930s by a woman who lived from 1866 until then, so there is some racialized language. Of course we have to accept that this was how they spoke back then, but I still found it jarring. The way she writes about and treats African Americans in the book shows how ingrained casual racism/colonialist ideals permeated society back then, despite her having no outward animosity towards other races.

The writing style is simplistic with an easy flow that keeps things moving. There wasn’t a huge focus on religion, which I liked, and I liked how they added dialogue that Mary couldn’t possible have remembered, to make it feel more like a novel.

Overall, a really wonderful book. I’m not even sure how I heard of it, but highly recommended.
Profile Image for Gigi.
143 reviews5 followers
July 17, 2011
Trials of the Earth is a true account of one of the first settlers of the Mississippi Delta. Mary Hamilton says she thinks she is the first white woman to cross the Sunflower River. Her recollections of this difficult yet fascinating period of history are as detailed as they are honest. If you enjoyed These Is My Words, you will love a nonfiction version of that book.

I grew up in the Delta and often played along the banks of the Sunflower River even though I was forbidden to do so. Reading Hamilton's account took me back to my childhood games and added dimension to stories my imagination had long conjured up. Even if you didn't enjoy playing pioneer as a child, you will love Mary's common sense approach to life and her indomitable spirit.

One warning the book gives is the inclusion of Mary's original wording in regards to race at that time. Her words have not been edited and sometimes the use of words common to that period cause us today to gulp for air. Rightly so. We have little by little, albeit too slowly, been weaned of hatred and racism. In that period, black people were still considered property and a different class. I caution readers of this because it was the one problem I had with the book. Can I recommend a book that includes such language? I settled on recommending it primarily because of the authenticity. I can no more edit that period than I could edit her language. We grow by looking at the warts of our culture straight on and not sugar-coating or spinning them.

I appreciate Hamilton's candor and her willingness to put her story out there for the next generations.
Profile Image for Melanie Smith.
56 reviews4 followers
July 18, 2016
I was born and raised in Clarksdale, Mississippi and when my mom told me about this book I could not wait to read it. I am usually a cozy mystery fan with a little historical fiction thrown in. After reading two chapters of the book, I knew it was going to be one of my favorites. My aunt still resides in Dublin, Mississippi. I purchased this book for myself, my mom and my aunt. Reading about the places that I grew up around was so exciting and to learn and read about the woman that was part of paving the way, I just cannot express my gratitude for Ms. Mary Mann Hamilton.
If you want to learn about the hardships and daily routines and adventures of developing the Mississippi Delta, then you are going to love this book! It is just amazing to me what they went through and how they survived. There are still "old families" located in the delta and I just knew that I was going to come across a name of a family that lived just down the road.
Anyone that loves history is going to truly love this book!
21 reviews4 followers
July 29, 2016
This is such an interesting book. Her life and hardships and the stories that accompany it are unbelievable. If I could have given this book 3.5 stars I would have for these reasons: it needs indices, including maps of the various camps and areas she moves around, family tree, and maybe a dictionary for some of her old fashioned words and phrases. Also, as this was written in her own words it was a bit difficult to understand at times. That said, I think this should be required reading for Americans.
31 reviews5 followers
January 3, 2017
I had a little trouble getting into this book at the start. There are a lot of names and places and I admittedly did not do a great job keeping straight while I read. It is incredible that these stories are true (truth is stranger than fiction, for realz!!) Also pretty amazing how much she remembered about the events in her life so many years later. I didn't love some of the transitions from place to place and from one event to the next, but overall I really enjoyed hearing about this woman's incredible life.
Profile Image for Dara Tinius.
465 reviews27 followers
September 21, 2016
So few writings from this time were from a woman's point of view. Mary Hamilton went through extraordinary hardships as a pioneer in the American south. Its also a product of it's time and the casual and sometimes violent racism is hard to stomach but also instructive. This is a fascinating read and a valuable historical record. I don't like all that Mary has to say but I am glad I got a chance to read it.
September 4, 2016
This woman's story impressed so many different things upon me. Perseverance thru grief, grueling work, and hardship after hardship while trying to carve out a life and home in the wild Mississippi Delta. An excellent storyteller.
286 reviews1 follower
May 20, 2018
I really enjoyed this book. Anytime a nonfiction reads more like a novel, it's hard not to enjoy it. Knowing some of the territory she was referring to and seeing how it changed in those years was quite interesting as well. Excellent read for anyone interested in Mississipi or Arkansas history as well as anyone who is looking to see an attitude of joy during trying circumstances.
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