“The Lost Wife,” “Past and Present” books and other Colorado reads

“Denver: Past and Present,” by Mark A. Barnhouse (Arcadia Publishing) and “Douglas County: Past and Present,” by Jean Jacobsen and Susan Rocco-McKeel (Arcadia Publishing)

Then-and-now pictures are always fun.  But they can be disturbing when you see a once-elegant old building stripped of its adornments or a wildlife scene replaced by a cheesy housing development. These authors show changes that have taken place in Denver and in Douglas County in 50 to 150 years.

In “Denver,” popular author Mark A. Barnhouse, known for his histories of the city’s retailing establishments and 17th Street, concentrates on commercial street views. Curtis Street once was aglow with so many lightbulbs it was called “Denver’s Great White Way.” It is now a strip of sedate office buildings.  Lakeside has fared better: Its tower is still there minus a few light bulbs.

Barnhouse includes residences, such as the Cornwall house at 13th and Ogden streets and the Stanley Arms, at 10th and Lafayette.  Both look better today with trees and bushes.

In “Douglas County,” the authors concentrate on buildings and landscape that haven’t changed much in the intervening years.  The Victor House, once the finest residence in Sedalia, appears much as it did in the 1880s, minus the outhouse.  The Cantril school building looks even better with grass and towering trees.  But a Starbucks has replaced a mid-century modern gas station.

“Send a Ranger,” by Tom Habecker (Falcon)

Who wouldn’t want to be a national park ranger — communing with animals, leading hikes and trail rides, giving talks on the environment?  According to Tom Habecker in “Send A Ranger,” that’s not what it’s all about.  Harbecker spent his life as a ranger in Gettysburg, Yosemite, Glacier and Denali national parks.

The most important aspect of the job, Harbecker writes in this tale of a life serving the national parks, was safety, and that included fighting crime. In 1980, when he was at Yosemite, there were 16 homicides, 69 rapes, 294 robberies, 643 assaults and 1,552 burglaries in the national park system, and that’s only gone up. He relates the heartbreaking story of rangers and other searchers spending weeks hunting for a teenage girl who’d wandered off from her campsite.  No trace of her was ever found.  Another time, Habecker arrested a drunk driver in Yosemite, only to find he was wanted for a vicious murder in Illinois.

There were glorious times for Harbecker, too.  He loved the silent winters when snow covered his cabin and the solitary horseback rides in the wilderness.  And he took pleasure in knowing he saved lives, such as the time he and 10 volunteers carried an injured woman 6 miles on a litter through the dark for medical help.

Some experiences left him shaking his head.  Once, a woman in Chicago called, concerned about her husband, who was climbing Denali.  She wanted Harbecker to look out the window to see if he could spot him.  Her husband was wearing a red coat, the woman explained.  Harbecker told her it was 3 a.m. and dark, and the mountain was 90 miles away.

“Mud, Blood and Ghosts,” by Julie Carr (University of Nebraska Press)

Populism, spiritualism and eugenics were part of America’s consciousness from the late 1800s to well into the 20th century.  University of Colorado professor Julie Carr looks at those issues through the lens of her own family history, in a book that explores America’s dark side.

The author’s great-grandfather, Omer Kem, was the author of an 11-volume autobiography that paralleled the rise and fall of populism.  Kem was a study in contrasts.  As a member of the U.S. Congress, he was an outspoken advocate of Indian rights. Yet he homesteaded on land taken from Native Americans.  His daughter was mentally challenged, still, Kem was a proponent of eugenics — the act of sterilizing the mentally ill, the poor and other “undesirables.”  He believed it was high time Americans produced “thoroughbreds” instead of “criminals.”

As a populist, he fought for labor rights, while denying union membership to members of various races and nationalities. He embraced birth control but had a dozen children.

It’s tough to see your family with all its faults. Carr admits to reservations as she delves into the story of Kem and his family, once residents of Montrose, where they lived on land that once belonged to the Utes.

Like Carr, readers will likely compare yesterday’s populist movement with today’s populism revival.  Many early-day adherents, she warns, ended by embracing “full-blown white supremacy.”

“The Lost Wife,” by Susanna Moore (Knopf)

Sarah Brinton escapes her abusive husband and endures a perilous journey west to meet a childhood friend, only to discover the friend is dead. With little way to support herself, she marries a doctor she doesn’t love, then moves with him and their two children to the Sioux reservation.  “The Lost Wife” is a novel based on a true incident.

Sarah quickly makes friends with the Sioux women, trading recipes for medicinal herbs, giving food from her larder and even smoking a pipe filled with kinnikinic. But nothing can save her from the Indians’ rage when in 1862, the Sioux go on the rampage.  Sarah and the children are captured, and she escapes being raped when a powerful Indian takes her under his protection, pretending she is his wife. Sarah adapts to Indian life, wearing buckskins and braiding her hair, to the disgust of other female captives. The women turn on her after they are rescued. Sarah is condemned for trying to survive.

Author Susanna Moore writes of the hopelessness of women who have little control over their lives.  “The Lost Wife” is a terse novel, finely written, that underscores the plight of both white women and Indians subjected to the tyranny of the white man’s world.

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