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The Bonnet Book by Nancy Menees Hardesty!
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The Bonnet Book
Diary of an Orphan Train Hatmaker
Nancy Menees Hardesty
Solificatio, August 2020
From the author—
Sent away on an orphan train at fourteen, smart and lovely Blanche Spencer lands in St. Louis, Missouri as a nursemaid, wearing rags and sleeping in a pantry. To rise above her servitude, she begins a self-education program. A trade booth at the 1904 World’s Fair and a Cobden, Illinois apprenticeship launch her into a hat-making career, which she documents in a tiny diary, The Bonnet Book.
An early example of self-determination and girl power, Blanche—now Bonnie—travels alone to the Wild West, where she’s presented with the chance of a lifetime and the possibility of love—both rife with challenges that test her drive, purpose in life, and sense of self.
The Bonnet Book diary and other historical items in the novel are real-life touchstones in this gripping, inspiring story based on the life of the author’s grandmother.
Imagine being a 14-year-old girl living a simple life in a family much too large for the very limited income her father earns as a teacher. It’s the turn of the 20th century and these conditions are not terribly unusual but things are getting worse, economically, and hard choices need to be made.
Blanche is a very intelligent girl growing up in a family that loves her, especially her father, but that same father makes a life-altering decision with no warning, a decision that sends Blanche into a future bereft of everything and everyone she’s known her entire life. Did he know what was in store for her, the years of servitude, or did he really believe she would be placed in a loving home full of opportunities she would never have if she remained in Oraville, Illinois? That’s something we can only guess at but, by setting Blanche on this path, he certainly changed her future dramatically.
The Bonnet Book is the tale of how this very resilient girl rose above her travails through her own efforts, determined to educate herself and develop a worthy trade, that of hatmaking, and learned to cope with the pain of abandonment. Along the way, I discovered how Blanche became Bonnie and shared in her adventures in the Wild West of Oklahoma. Based on the life of the author’s grandmother, it’s a fascinating story and I was completely captured by the way Blanche responded to her new life and was honored to see bits and pieces of her Bonnet Book diary.
Ms. Hardesty’s notes at the end and the photographs scattered throughout the book are equally fascinating and bring a vibrancy to this tale of a most uncommon girl. This is the best kind of historical fiction, a foray into a “real” person’s life in times very different from our own.
Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2020.
An Excerpt from The Bonnet Book
Robey Household • St. Louis, Missouri
A uniformed driver with a top hat steered the stylish carriage up Market Street, en route to the Robey household on West Bell Place.
Blanche watched her first city unfold before her blue eyes—tightly spaced buildings with unusual details; advertising services; a store with a carved fish over the entrance; a red-white-and-blue-striped pole at a barber shop; a ten-foot-high beer mug at a tavern. Their swift carriage followed other horse-drawn ones up the wide and busy boulevard. Sometimes they passed a double train car on a track in the center of the street. A city train, Blanche thought. None of what she saw seemed intimidating to her. It was just the first colorful page of her big-city adventure.
After twenty minutes, the carriage stopped at a three-story red-brick building with a glass vestibule. The building was much larger than a house, and it was in a cluster of eight similar buildings.
Blanche followed Mrs. Robey to the bathroom and closed the door. Just a few hours ago, she had seen a flush toilet and porcelain sinks for the first time. It was amazing how quickly one got used to these things! She came out feeling much refreshed.
“Blanche, Greta is cleaning the pantry for you. You can sleep there. You will have your own room for privacy, with a door and a light.” Mr. Robey closed the pocket watch and returned it to his vest pocket.
“Come, Blanche,” said Mrs. Robey. “Greta will walk you to the girls’ room to get your belongings. I have put your white dress in their closet. You can use your shawl as a bed cover.”
The two walked down the dark hallway, Blanche a few feet behind Greta.
As they returned to the kitchen, Blanche smelled the strong odor of vinegar coming from the pantry. Greta stepped aside as Mrs. Robey approached.
The pantry was only six feet wide, with floor-to-ceiling shelves and cupboards on both sides. It had no window and seemed airless. Opposite the pantry door was a built-in cabinet with a pull-out enamel surface for mixing dough. Below that were bins for flour and onions. Beyond the tall cabinet were two more cupboards containing baking supplies and bins of potatoes. The wall that backed the kitchen contained narrow shelves and was generously stacked with jars of jam, preserved vegetables, nuts, coffee, and spices. At the back wall were cleaning supplies, all stored neatly on old newspapers. This left a mere thirty-inch by six-foot space, with a floor drain in the middle. A single gas light hung by a bare cord from the ceiling.
“Well, here we are,” said Mrs. Robey.
Blanche saw a folded tarp with an old feather mattress over it. There was also a ragged pillow covered in purple floral fabric at the far end of the pallet, next to damp mops.
“You will be warm and dry here—much better than at the train depot. Greta will walk you to the bathroom, and then you can find your way back here on your own.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said a very tired Blanche.
Blanche finished her bathroom chores and found her way back to her bedroom, which she knew was really a kitchen pantry, not a bedroom. But on this first night, she was grateful for any safe place to sleep. She turned on the single dim light, closed the door, and took off her gingham dress, hanging it over the aprons. She got the pillow next to the wet mops and brought it over to the pantry door. The smell of vinegar and onions filled her nostrils. She turned out the light, leaned against the pantry door, and wiped a single tear from her cheek.
She thought about the day. She thought about the two sweet girls to whom she was assigned and their very reserved parents. She was in a home with nice furniture, lovely music, and good food. Maybe this was the beginning of “sweet hope” and new things to learn. But then here she was, about to sleep in an airless pantry.
It was not a happy space, but it was safe.
A sob came out as a choke.
Tonight I will have vinegar dreams, she thought. Sour and scary dreams.
She tumbled over and wrapped herself in the blue shawl.
About the Author
Nancy Menees Hardesty, born in Illinois and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, moved to San Francisco, California in 1969. Nancy spent six years researching and writing her debut novel, The Bonnet Book. She had various family journals and artifacts and the extensive help of her mother, Mary Kay Menees, who was the daughter-in-law of the book’s protagonist, Bonnie Spencer. The tiny “Bonnet Book” of hat sketches and the wooden hat-supply trunk featured in the book are still in the author’s possession.
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