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October 04, 1987|Meredith Babeaux Brucker \f7

JESSIE BENTON FREMONT: AMERICAN WOMAN OF THE 19TH CENTURY by Pamela Herr (Franklin Watts: $24.95; 496 pp.). This biography reads like a historical novel. The daughter of a powerful U. S. senator meets a dashing explorer and impulsively elopes. Famous characters of her era make cameo appearances in her life as she hurtles between thrilling highs--her husband's presidential campaign, discovering gold, Civil War battles, adventurous travel--and the low points--a court-martial, bankruptcy, accusations of corruption. Finally, our fiercely loyal heroine realizes her hero has feet of clay. But she says with spirit that she is always ready to "take hold of fortune's wheel and pull it to the place I would have it stick." Then to add to a gutsy finish, she supports herself in her final days in sunny Los Angeles writing brilliantly of her melodramatic life.

Irving Stone's popular "Immortal Wife" portrayed Jessie Benton Fremont as content in her helpmate role. But this more feminist contemporary perspective of history shows the Fremont marriage as troubled and Jessie a "woman chafing at her domestic role, who relished the moments when she felt she had played a real part in the masculine world." The author's words are as readable as those of her subject, and pages flip past as the passions of fascinating Jessie are recreated.

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