An atmospheric picture from American frontier history, Angels over Yellowstone explores larger societal issues through the lens of one small family’s experience as their lives are dramatically affected by the demands of a growing young nation.
In the 1890s in Wyoming, the United States government has decided to fully claim lands in the Yellowstone region that were earlier designated as national parkland. The American Women’s Suffrage movement was in full swing, the Sierra Club was founded, the Boston subway being built, and the Wounded Knee Massacre had just taken place—these were just a few of the events that were shaping this young nation at this time.
In poet/author Elisabeth Ward’s paean to pioneer life, a young woman, Casey Potter, will be especially affected by this news, when soldiers arrive at her cabin one morning to announce that she, her trapper husband Lang, and their little girl Ginger, must move away so that the land around them can be viewed by tourists, untouched by human influence.
The simple life they share will be sacrificed to the greater good, to national domain and the preservation of pristine nature.
Living so remotely from civilization, barely able to think in terms of national agendas, Casey understands only that she and her family have to leave the cabin home they love, forced off the hunting grounds whose bounty has fed their family. But knowing that the soldiers will return soon to burn down their precious homestead, they acquiesce.
Accepting their fate, the three vacate their hearth and home as they are forced to set out and start anew. However, Casey and Lang return to report their moving on to a fellow trapper. It is their return that brings about fatal consequences. Coming to terms with the loss of her home and then the loss of her husband is almost more than Casey can bear. Casey considers the notion of suicide until she finds solace in simple rituals, what she calls “service” or the simple rituals of everyday life.
Ward’s characters are lyrically and powerfully drawn as are her evocative images of the time and place of this young nation at the turn of the new century. The author deftly juxtaposes Casey’s reluctant departure from her secure landscape with Lang’s earlier expedition when he met the girl with rust-colored hair: “…After seeing Casey McGregor’s hair he felt everything was dull.” The author interweaves poetry into the story, intensifying the emotional content. The pulse of her plot is unwaveringly strong, holding the reader to the page.
To some, Ward’s concentration on one white family’s tribulations may seem somewhat skewed, since the biggest losers in the opening of the national parklands were undoubtedly the Native American peoples. Nevertheless, Ward’s tale underscores some larger truths about our twin American conflicting aspirations, to conquer and to conserve.
Angels over Yellowstone combines a richly drawn saga of personal love and loss with some provoking philosophical questions about the American ethos.