“We loved your mom’s letters!” I hear this from people all the time. “She wrote the most interesting letters, all about your life out there in the wilderness and all the things that happened. We’d read them over and over, sometimes out loud and feel like we were along for the adventure. We really felt like you guys were on the edge of nowhere and that supplies were really short by the way your mom used every bare space, writing in the margins, across the top. We had to turn the paper as we read it. We loved it and couldn’t wait for the next installment!”
Another person said it was “Reality TV before that was a thing.”
I had that same thought when I was reading a book of letters written by Emily McCorkle Fitzgerald, an Army doctor’s wife who lived in Sitka in the 1870s — long before there was television, let alone Reality TV.
She writes to her mother: “I wish you could be here with us. I know you would enjoy it and be charmed with Sitka. I said to Doctor a little while ago how I wished you could just look in on us this evening and see how cozy and comfortable we are. Bess is asleep in the next room with the door open so I can hear if she even moves. I am writing at the sitting room table and Doctor is enjoying the papers you sent us.”
She describes in delightful detail outings her little family takes in exploring 19th century Sitka; and beyond it the wilderness shores.
This idyll in the former capital of Russian America is undermined, as any good Reality TV show would be, by a character who brings nothing but chaos, a young girl Emily took on to help with the chores and take care of the baby. Mary is the girl’s name.
“Mary is the most terrible child I ever had anything to do with. She will be the death of me yet. She has such an ugly disposition, gets so angry if we speak to her…. She thinks she knows everything, and when I insist upon certain things being done my way instead of hers, she gets cross as can be and is cross at everybody and everything.”
There are quirky daily events, such as when the doctor helps himself to Emily’s expensive soap to buy a snipe off a Tlingit woman in order to stuff it. Then there’s the frightening time when Emily nearly dies in childbirth and the doctor takes over writing the letters to keep Emily’s mother informed of her progress.
He includes in his letters some local news, describing a “pow-wow going on at the Indian village between these Indians and a neighboring tribe” to settle a difference. He says that the Sitka Tlingits, while out hunting recently, shot and killed a woman of a neighboring tribe, mistaking her for a seal as she was swimming. “Her friends have now come down in force to demand satisfaction which they are to have either in ‘blankets or blood.’” War, he reports, could well be the result.
Once Emily returns to health she notices how often Bess gets hurt by Mary’s rough play and how Mary never seems to feel remorse or concern for the sometimes serious accidents. On top of worry about Mary’s behavior at home, Emily is concerned about what she gets up to in town.
“I don’t believe her mother has any idea how much she knows about men and such things,” Emily writes, dipping the pen into the inkwell repeatedly, obviously needing to vent. “She is no child in her knowledge and worries me most to death. … She thinks she is charming and noticed by all the men when she goes out anywhere. If I make her wear her old waterproof in the mornings, she almost cries and certainly is cross. … The other day she put on her best plaid dress, and when I inquired why, she said there were ‘so many soldiers over there.’”
Emily continues at another time: “I am always in terror for fear she will do something that will ruin her … she does try in this silly, giddy way of hers to attract the men’s attention. She calls them by their names and throws things at them and stops them. Doctor has told her so many times that these men would take all she says and does to them as encouragement to get her into trouble, but Mary knows more than anybody else.”
There’s an incident where a drunken soldier follows up on Mary’s advances and attempts to assault her in Emily’s kitchen. The doctor comes in and is furious. He has the soldier brought up on charges, but Mary, on the other hand, “thought it was all in fun, for she said she could take care of herself, wasn’t afraid of men, etc.”
Mary, it is later discovered, has been sneaking out of the house at night to visit the soldiers and other men in town and winds up with a disease. She’s completely unconcerned about it, or about the possibility of becoming pregnant. After she leaves the doctor’s employ, Emily writes about meeting Mary one last time and is fairly certain that Mary has quite happily become a lady of the night.
In another episode, the doctor nearly dies in a storm during an expedition to Mount Edgecumbe. Emily realizes what it would be like for her with two small children to be a widow in that far off land in that time period, thrown back on her own resources.
She describes many local Tlingit events, tragic and otherwise, but of course in the bigoted language of her time. As readers, we really get the sense of how alien the Native world is to her, a woman born and raised in a more “refined” place. “Everything is so different from what we are accustomed to in the East,” she writes.
I imagine that her family back East treasure her letters and re-read them just as family and friends read my mom’s letters, enjoying Reality TV before there was such a thing.
• Alaska For Read columnist Tara Neilson lives in the wilderness in a floathouse near Meyers Chuck. She blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com.