Reading the journals of her Harvey Girl ancestor sends a young Texas woman back in time to the New Mexico frontier in Crook’s warmly drawn novel (Promised Lands, 1994, etc.).
Thirtyish Meg Mabry, an administrator in an Austin hospital, has a prickly relationship with her irrepressible grandmother, Claudia Bass. A renowned historian universally known as Bassie, the old lady made her reputation by publishing the journals of her mother, Hannah, a Harvey Girl at the Montezuma Hotel in New Mexico at the turn of the century. Bassie also essentially raised Meg after the girl’s alcoholic mother proved unreliable. She now insists that her granddaughter accomplish two things before Bassie dies: Meg must read the six volumes of her great-grandmother’s journals, and she must accompany her grandmother to Pecos, where Bassie was born and lived briefly before Hannah died of TB. To her ire, Bassie learns that the visitor’s center in Pecos, located near the site of the old Bass homestead, plans to excavate Dog Hill, where the bones of her mother’s pets are buried. With the help of mild-mannered archaeologist Jim Layton, Bassie and Meg dig up the dog bones in order to remove them. But what is a human skeleton doing buried there? While this mystery unfolds, Meg plows through great swaths of the journals, which make delightful reading as Hannah vividly describes her work at the hotel and friendships with other waitresses. But they have a darker side as well. Hannah’s husband, engineer Elliott Bass, bore lifelong emotional scars resulting from the murder of his family by Mormons during the infamous Mountain Meadows wagon-train massacre in Utah. During their marriage, Elliott traveled extensively, laying track for the fledgling railroad, sending home detailed letters (also included) while Hannah experienced a growing intellectual attraction to the son of a rich local sheep-rancher.
A multilayered narrative of impressive historical perspicacity, enriched by the author’s loving attention to character.