As a writer, it’s not surprising that I enjoy reading. But as a farm wife, it’s also not surprising that I don’t get much time to read. I typically read the news daily, either online or in a printed newspaper. Beyond that, when I do have the opportunity to read a book, I like to peruse things that are both entertaining and worthwhile.
For some, that might be a good romance novel — and I’ve read my share of those — but lately, when I pick up a book, it’s likely to be a biography about the life of someone worth admiring. I recently finished reading a book that was a widely acclaimed choice of numerous book clubs. And, by the way, I don’t currently belong to any book clubs, because my schedule doesn’t allow me to read as fast as necessary to be a contributing participant — but it is on my “bucket list.”
“America’s First Daughter” was a book I looked forward to picking up every chance I got. I read through it in a few weeks, a record for me. It is the story of Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph, the daughter of our third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson. The book follows her life from before the time she was a young girl promising her dying mother she would always look after her father. Staying close to her father put Patsy in the center of many historic events, not only in the fledgling United States, but also on the world stage during the years while he was America’s minister to France. The Jeffersons understandably became closely entwined with many famous people of their era.
If you’ve ever visited Monticello, Jefferson’s estate near Charlottesville, Virginia, you might picture Patsy and her family living a life of prestige and luxury, but that was surely not the case. Their life was a hard one, largely dependent financially on the agriculture and politics of the day. As the tobacco and cotton crops went, so went the fortunes of their lives. Patsy was often left to manage their farm while her father was off in Washington, but I won’t spoil the plot by elaborating further.
Finishing “America’s First Daughter” was actually a sad event for me. Finding a good book is like having to trade in a car that has served you well. You’re never sure if the next one might be a lemon, so you’d rather hang on to what you know you’ve enjoyed. (Did I mention I’ve owned my current car for 15 years?)
Fortunately, finding another good book proved to be easier than buying a new car. I stumbled upon another farming-related book, this one an autobiography written by British author Amanda Owen. You’ve probably never heard of her and neither had I. It was the book’s title that caught my attention: “A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess.” Its subtitle was even more intriguing: “1 husband, 8 children, 1,000 sheep.”
Amanda and her husband, Clive, live on the remote and ancient farm known as Ravenseat in the Yorkshire hills. It is a wild and challenging place, but also a very beautiful one. Amanda manages to capture both the plusses and minuses of raising a large family and tending far-flung flocks in a landscape and a way of life that haven’t changed much through the centuries. Life is a struggle, and despite access to modern conveniences, those amenities are often many miles from home and require treacherous journeys to reach them. This is even true of getting their children to schools that are located far from home in all kinds of difficult weather conditions.
Amanda’s book is organized into 12 chapters, one for each month of the year. I haven’t made it past spring yet, but I’m already marveling at her resilience and can-do attitude in many farm-related adversities. All of this is told with humor, and sometimes in the dialect of that region, which can take some re-reading aloud to catch the gist of it. Although we live in different worlds, she is a farm wife with whom I can identify.
The book’s foreword says that Amanda, who grew up in a town, was inspired to head to the countryside by reading the books of James Herriot, a British country veterinarian who had many adventures in his practice and a way with words to write about them. His book “All Creatures Great and Small” and other works have been favorites of mine for years. On this Mother’s Day weekend, I’m reminded that I often made gifts of them to my late mother. The Herriot books might’ve inspired me to move to the country, too, if I weren’t already living there.