Call the marketing department! Rarely has a novel been so badly named as Seashells in the Desert, a 2011 historical mystery by Susan Tornga. There’s actually a good audience for fiction focused on the Harvey Girls, but it would be rather difficult to find this one, given its title, which refers to a rather meaningless episode in the novel. In fact, the emphasis on seashells leads the reader to believe that they may be important to the plot. Not so. In spite of a rather lame title, this is a good read for those interested in the Harvey Girls phenomenon, particularly for those traveling to Winslow, Arizona, where the novel is set–although the 1895 Harvey House of the novel was replaced in 1930 by an extraordinary hotel designed by Mary Colter: La Posada, a destination in itself.
The narrator, Tessa Crane, is an early Nancy Drew, who stumbles into a murder mystery when a young woman who arrives on the eastbound train from San Francisco makes a scene in the dining room and is later found dead. Clues suggest that she was taking care of “past business,” but what is the secret that takes not only her life but also that of old Doctor Benton? Tessa is determined to find out and also help the unjustly jailed brother of her roommate, Lupe Castillo, Joaquin, who may have had an intimate relationship with the dead woman several years earlier when she lived in Winslow. Prejudice against Mexicans such as Lupe and Joaquin is a problem as they are deemed guilty immediately by many townspeople and even Tessa’s sister Harvey girls.
Not the most adept detective, Tessa botches several encounters with potential informants. Of course, by novel’s end, she has solved the case. Along the way, there is historical information about cattle ranching, Fort Apache, and Fred Harvey and his innovative hiring of educated young women to staff his western hotels and dining rooms along the Santa Fe railway. Seashells in the Desert is yet another self-published novel, testament to the increasing number of authors whose works are reaching readers through e-books.
For anyone traveling in the Southwest, reading about Fred Harvey and his Harvey Girls is intrinsically interesting. Several books, in fact, focus on how Harvey influenced the development of the West—primarily through reliable dining but also through arts, archaeology, culture, and history. While many know the Harvey Girls through the 1946 film of the same name—a Judy Garland vehicle—one of the lesser known aspects is the “Southwest Indian Detour Couriers,” a fascinating group of college-educated women, bilingual in English and Spanish, who served as guides for tours that provided a more intensive and up-close look at Pueblo culture. These women trained intensively before heading out on tours, wearing jaunty hats, velveteen blouses, tan skirts, and a lot of Navajo jewelry (pictured in the History Room of Bright Angel Lodge at the South Rim of Grand Canyon). Diane H. Thomas describes these tours in her The Southwestern Indian Detours: The Story of the Fred Harvey/Santa Fe Railway Experiment in “Detourism” (1978). Truly, Fred Harvey provided employment (and adventure) opportunities for young women at the turn of the 20thcentury.
To read more about these fascinating characters, try these titles:
Harvey Girl, Sheila Wood Foard (2006)—set in New Mexico and the Grand Canyon; suitable for young readers
When Molly Was a Harvey Girl, Frances M. Wood (2010)—set in Raton, NM; suitable for young readers
The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West, Lesley Poling-Kempes (1994)
Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West–One Meal at a Time, Stephen Fried (2011)
Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest, Richard Melzer (2008): a photographic history
The Harvey House Cookbook: Memories of Dining along the Santa Fe Railway, George H. Foster and Peter Weiglin, 2006: includes vintage recipes. For a contemporary version see the cookbook La Posada’s Turquoise Room Cookbook by John Sharpe (or even better, eat there).
Inventing the Southwest: The Fred Harvey Company and Native American Art, Kathleen F. Howard and Diana Pardue, 1996. This one tells the more unflattering tale of how Harvey influenced Native American art to be “acceptable” to an American buying public.
A personal note: Staying in El Tovar, a Harvey House on Grand Canyon’s South Rim, is part of a quest to visit each of the legendary Great Lodges of the West by Christine Barnes (1997). We’ve only one left, and pursuing this goal over several years has been a real pleasure. El Tovar was designed by Charles Whittlesey, who is also architect for the wonderful Riordan Mansion in Flagstaff, Arizona, now a state park. The more famous architect of the Southwest is, naturally, Mary Colter. Her buildings at the Grand Canyon are legendary, but we were even more pleased to discover La Posada in Winslow, Arizona, a hotel that has been reborn since its 1997 acquisition by a visionary couple.