"This State of Wonders"
"This fascinating collection of 75 letters, written by members of the John Hugh Williams family to son and brother James Madison Williams, provides intimate glimpses into frontier life…Through the letters readers share the uncertainties of the Iowa climate, the importance of education (both formal schooling and the considerable access to newspapers and literary works), the shared New Church (Swedenborgian) religious faith, the concern for a daughter's health, the sense of isolation, and the pain of separation from a loved family member…a worthwhile collection, judiciously edited and with a solid interpretative foreword and epilogue."—Choice
"The letters not only recount problems arising from drought, prairie fires, harsh winters, and 'the want of refined and decent society,' but also reveal the family's reactions to the mid-century depression, the discovery of gold at Pikes Peak, and the impending civil war. Further, the recording of prosaic day-to-day experiences provides a rare picture of the daily concerns of women and children on the frontier."—Western Historical Quarterly
"After reading both the letters and the notes, one has a good sense of a substantial frontier family and its concerns and values as well as of its place in the community."—Pacific Historical Review
When the John Hugh Williams family immigrated to Homer, Iowa, in the 1850s, they had six children, ranging in age from five to twenty. Suddenly land poor, in debt, and caught in the Panic of '57, they sent their eldest son, James, to Georgia to work and add to the family income.
The seventy-five letters collected here represent the family's correspondence to their absent son and brother. From 1858 to 1861, James' sisters, brothers, mother, and father wrote to him frequently, each with distinct views on their daily life and struggles. While Mr. Williams wrote most often about money, farming, and moral advice (he was minister in the Church of New Jerusalem, as well as a merchant and farmer), Mrs. Williams commented on her daily chores, the family's health, the ever-important weather, and her leisure activities, including the contemporary journals and books she read, such as David Copperfield and Jane Eyre. James' sisters and brothers wrote about many concerns, from schoolwork and housework to games and family celebrations in nearby Webster City.
As the letters continue, the affection for the absent James becomes more pronounced. And, as the years go by, the letters touch on more current national trends, including the Pikes Peak Gold Rush and the growing North/South crisis, on which James and his family strongly disagree. James was never to return to Iowa but married and remained in the South, becoming a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate army.
Complete with voices both young and old, male and female, This State of Wonders offers a wealth of information about the daily life of an ordinary family on the Iowa prairie. It is a book to be treasured by all Iowans interested in the early life of their state and by all historians looking for a complete portrait of family life on the midwestern frontier.