Embrace of the Wild by Linda Ballou

Flavia PotenzaBy Flavia Potenza

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Embrace of the Wild by Linda Ballou
Reviewed by Flavia Potenza Thank you, Linda Ballou, for “Embrace of the Wild,” and introducing us to the extraordinary equestrian explorer Lady Isabella Lucy Bird (1831-1904) and her lust for adventure in the American West. “Her mission was not to walk in the footsteps of famous explorers or literary figures, but to get to places others had not gone,” Ballou writes in the introduction. Lady Isabella’s books chronicling her adventures, are compilations of her letters written to her younger sister who arranged to publish them. It was her book, “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains,” that inspired Ballou to meet the challenges inherent in fictionalizing her by “writing her story in the first person…and keeping to the spirit of her letters without plagiarizing.” For Isabella, who suffered from lifelong back pain exacerbated by riding side-saddle and sometimes wore a brace, it was sheer determination for her to embark on a long sea voyage to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawai’i). Here she learned to ride astride her horse, to “charge up the flank of a living volcano, ford roaring torrents…, feel the loving touch of the healing hands of a Hawaiian elder…and let go of a lifetime of chronic pain.” On the way back from a treacherous journey of sixty miles to Waipio, the Valley of the Kings, they spurred their mounts “through coffee and kalo fields. I was one with my sturdy mare, riding barefoot with my hair loose and whipping the wind. My cheeks stung and felt flushed and my blood was up. I was loving every second of being alive! There would be nothing or no one that would ever stop me from knowing this raw freedom again!”
Lady Isabella Lucy Bird, Equestrian Explorer
She would experience that freedom again when she achieved her ultimate goal of Estes Park in Colorado where she would climb, with the help of Rocky Mountain Jim, Longs Peak, the highest peak in the Rocky Mountain range.

“I had reached my destination and it was all mine. I felt I had escaped from the eyes of people and their many expectations. I was not the preacher’s daughter devoted to charitable work elected to spread the word of God. I was not a spinster that should be seeking a husband. I was not an invalid too weak to lift her head from the pillow. No, I was none of those things. I felt a deep sense of belonging to this moment. That I was where I longed to be. Free in my wildness.”

As historical fiction, Ballou “took this opportunity to give Rocky Mountain Jim a history that reflected the times and fit with the story I wanted to tell. I placed him at the Sand Creek Massacre,” on November 29, 1864, where peace chief Black Kettle was betrayed by Col. John Chivington, who brought in a 675-man force of the Third Colorado Cavalry, killing and maiming an estimated 70-500 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, about two-thirds of them were women and children. In November 2000 the Sand Creek National Historic site was established and is administered by the National Park Service.

“I wanted to give a voice to the Native Americans through his character. I also tried to illuminate the settlers’ side of the Indian wars,” Ballou writes.

Like her first novel, “Wai-nani, A Voice from Old Hawai’i,” historical fiction seems to be Ballou’s strong suit. She does her research and spins a good yarn.

“Embrace of the Wild” is an easy read, gratefully in large type. What carries a reader through from beginning to end, of course, is the character of the clear-headed determination and endurance of Lady Isabella who knew what she wanted, got it, and wrote about it. She was, after all, the most popular adventure writer of her time.

Knowing that she lived and, as a middle-aged woman, threw off the shackles of Victorian restrictions of women is a spur to my flanks to discover more about Lady Isabella Lucy Bird who lived what she wrote about.
Flavia Potenza

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April 02, 2021

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