In the spring of 1898, A. E. (Alexandria) Bartram--a spirited young woman with a love for botany--is invited to join a field study in Yellowstone National Park. The study's leader, a mild-mannered professor from Montana, assumes she is a man, and is less than pleased to discover the truth. Once the scientists overcome the shock of having a woman on their team, they forge ahead on a summer of adventure, forming an enlightening web of relationships as they move from Mammoth Hot Springs to a camp high in the backcountry. But as they make their way collecting amid Yellowstone's beauty the group is splintered by differing views on science, nature, and economics. In the tradition of A. S. Byatt's Angels and Insects and Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever, this delightful novel captures an ever-fascinating era and one woman's attempt to take charge of her life.
The real beauty of this book, the lively way it intertwines the summertime landscapes and wildlife of Yellowstone National Park with the wonder and challenges visitors faced there in 1898, is accomplished through its epistolary form. The majority of the letters, all feeling true to period language, are penned by medical student Alex Bartram, who relies on her endearingly sarcastic wit and strict, scientific methods to prove her capabilities in a male-dominated field. Through their letters to colleagues and family, all the members of the wildlife-cataloging project reveal rich opinions of their successes and failures with both their work and the other Yellowstone inhabitants.
Alex learns through these strangers' guidance as she struggles to find independence from a world where her rock-climbing, male-bonding behavior is embarrassingly unladylike. She establishes a religious belief in nature's order during this unique period of growth in both United States history and a woman's life.