Cunning Inspiration: Dearest Darling and The Cunningham Cabin

20131018_155648Nothing takes my breath away quite so much as the landscape of northwestern Wyoming. If I say it leaves me speechless, you will understand how very difficult it is for me to relate the love affair I have with this small section of our vast country, how I feel no dictionary is complete enough to supply words to describe this patch of land where the earth has struggled like an indecisive artist to create high plains that stretch themselves into the harsh, jagged peaks of the Tetons. One can only feel reverence, one can only feel a minute speck in the vast panorama; it makes you realize how tiny and inconsequential you are in the scheme of things. So now, imagine how envious I am of those who are lucky enough to live there year-round compared to my two, comparatively brief stays each year. Then you can realize both the awe in which I hold those who homesteaded this unforgiving country and the jealousy I feel that they were able to live here. This is a land that gives you a sense of history, a sense of destiny. It is a geography of hope, forged by nature and hard won by man.

One of the men who would put his mark on this country was J. Pierce Cunningham. A fellow New Yorker, he arrived in the Jackson Hole area of the Tetons around 1885, aged about twenty. A few years later, he and his wife staked DSCN1349a claim under the Homestead Act, and thereby laid the foundations for what would become the Bar Flying U Ranch. The cabin they built, which under the Act had to be at least 12 x 12, was what is commonly known as a dogtrot or double-pen cabin, encompassing two separate rooms with a dogtrot or breezeway in-between. Although a more substantial home was eventually built, along with sheds, barns and other outbuildings, it is the original cabin that still stands today.

When I first visited Cunningham’s cabin I was immediately struck by the isolation of this remote location, how lonely it must have been in the 1880s. Although more than four hundred claims were filed in Jackson Hole in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the vastness of the valley meant there could be little interaction, especially during the harsh winter months. And this was a hardscrabble life; rocky soil led to high operating costs as ranchers struggled to feed their cattle during the long winter. The horrendous winter of 1886/87, as I described in my book Loveland, put an end to much of the open range ranching.DSCN1348

One might think, why do it then? I can only answer for myself as to what I feel when I stand there, surrounded by a landscape so startling, so inspiring, you feel purified, whole, inconsequential and ephemeral. Not having been born there, I cannot fathom my own attachment to this place, why I feel the oft-repeated need to return there, but it somehow cleanses me, clears my head. It was obvious that I somehow had to employ this site as the backdrop for a book. You might think it a poor reckoning, to use a setting so magnificent in my modest western historical romance.   After all, I could not possibly do it justice.

The view from Cunningham's cabin

The view from Cunningham’s cabin

But I have tried…

Dearest Darling comes out Oct. 8th from The Wild Rose Press.  To celebrate, I’ll be giving out copies of both this new novella and my full-length novel, Loveland, to up to 5 people who leave a comment.  The winners are Liz Flaherty, Eunice Boeve, Roni McFadden, Susan J. Tweit, and Rolynn Anderson.  Congrats to all and I hope you enjoy the books.

DearestDarling_w8647_750Stuck in a life of servitude to her penny-pinching brother, Emily Darling longs for a more exciting existence. When a packet with travel tickets, meant for one Ethel Darton, accidentally lands on her doormat, Emily sees a chance for escape. Having turned down the dreary suitors that have come her way, is it possible a new existence also offers a different kind of man?

Daniel Saunders has carved out a life for himself in Wyoming—a life missing one thing: a wife. Having scrimped and saved to bring his mail-order bride from New York, he is outraged to find in her stead a runaway fraud. Even worse, the impostor is the sister of his old enemy.

But people are not always as they seem, and sometimes the heart knows more than the head.


Emily liked the sound of his voice, low but not husky, a slight twang he had cultivated, but not pretentiously so. When he spoke, she envisaged melting caramel, something delicious, the way it could be so appealing as she stirred, with a shine and slow drip from the spoon, before it gradually solidified. Soothing. A liquid velvet.

But he hadn’t spoken today. Not since first thing when he’d told her to get ready. Not through breakfast, or as he helped clear dishes, or gave her a hand up into the wagon.

“You haven’t seen her. You didn’t see her picture, did you?” The questions came sudden, yet without malice.

Emily straightened, alert. “No. No, I didn’t.” Would I understand better? Is that what he meant?

“I keep it with me.” Daniel began to fish in his pocket. “Would you like to see it?”

“No. No, you keep it, please. It won’t change anything.” Emily panicked. She would be beautiful, the other, that would be the answer. So stunningly beautiful that just her photograph had enthralled him, mesmerized him into loving her. Emily couldn’t bear to look, didn’t want to know the answer. Didn’t wish to torture herself further. “And I’m sorry. I’m sorry for reading the letters.” A rush of words, they flowed out of her. “I should never have done that. It’s not like me. But you…well, you understand it seems—”

“You’re probably wondering what I see in her. Or what she sees in me. As for that, what she sees in me, I have no idea. Maybe, like you, she wishes to get away.”

Emily studied his profile, the planes and contours of his face, the eyes set straight ahead, the slouch hat low on his brow. He gave nothing away, was a man in control of his emotions, thinking, maybe still wondering how he had won that woman. Or maybe set on keeping the answer to himself.

Overhead, clouds scudded, scoured the sky, leached the blue, threatened.

“Did you ever ask her? Why you?”

“I did. She never answered. I’m thinking what she sees in me is husband material. I guess. She tells me about her day, the people she knows, what she does. As you read.”

“She just seems so…so outgoing, so…so very social to ever want this life. I found it difficult to believe.” She jutted her chin out, then turned to him, waiting.

He gave the reins a sharp shake. “I don’t know. I never asked if she knew what she was getting into. I described it. I assumed if she wanted to stop the correspondence there, she would have. I was pretty damn amazed and happy she’d wanted to come, written back even though I described the cabin to her, the isolation.” His gaze slid toward her.

“And you think she’ll make you a perfect wife, do you? Be happy living here? Cook your meals, mend your clothes, keep your cabin, have your babies?” Exasperated, she tried to make him think, think of what he was letting himself in for, how long a marriage like that could go on, how it could end up being even lonelier than he was now. Emily would seem to him to be trying to win him over rather than making him see the truth, but push him she must, save him, stop him. She knew those sorts of women, the debutantes, the socialites. Not a one would last out here, not for a single day.

His head snapped around to stare at her. “She’s been writing. She hasn’t stopped.”20131018_155503

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44 responses to “Cunning Inspiration: Dearest Darling and The Cunningham Cabin

  1. Congratulations on your upcoming release Andrea! Your love for the area is palpable and I find it very intriguing and maybe a little telling that the original Cunningham cabin still stands, but not the later buildings.


    • Thanks for your good wishes, Ruby. I’m not sure quite why the cabin still stands while the other buildings-house, bunkhouse, barns, etc. have been taken down, but I do know it continued to be used as a forge and store barn after they moved out, and I believe it was re-chinked and re-roofed in the 1950s which certainly would’ve helped!


  2. Loved the snippet! Ok, my very favorite genre, Mail Order Brides! I am totally fascinated and amazed at these women who would travel across a rough and wild land to marry a stranger. Most never saw their families again.
    I can’t wait to see where this story goes!


  3. Interesting blog post and enjoyed the excerpt. I’ve never been to that part of Wyoming, but my husband and I often vacation in the Snowy Mountains not far from Laramie. Most people don’t know those mountains, but there are beautiful hikes where you come upon one lake after another. Someday I’ll get to the Tetons (I hope!) Congratulations on your forthcoming novel!


    • I’ve been into Cheyenne down in that corner of the state but never Laramie–but it is on my drive list for next summer so thanks for the tip about the Snowy Mts. Hope you make it up north one day!


  4. Gosh, Andrea. “…feeling purified and inconsequential…” when standing in that awesome valley pretty much says it all for me, too. Can’t wait to hold a copy of “Dearest Darling” in my hands! Congrats on seeing the story through. – May it fly off shelves and burn cyber highways. xoxo tt


  5. I am looking forward to reading your new release! I love the Teton Mountains. People had to be tough to live back then. The wind and cold temps with little insulation in the cabins would be hard to live in. The beauty and the peacefulness made it all worthwhile.


    • Yup. Can you imagine living in temperatures that easily go into the minus ranges with just a small fireplace to keep you warm and no real insulation other than a few logs making a cabin? And this particular cabin was built in a style usually used in the south where the breezeway/dogtrot would give extra ventilation in the hot summers. Surely it must have filled with snow in winter…


  6. Andi,
    Wyoming is an amazing place. It is the geographic center in four of my books. If it weren’t for kids and grand-kids . . . Well you know the rest of that story. Thanks for the taste of your new book. I use some caramel confection in a lady’s eyes in my next. It works. Best of luck with it.


    • Caramel confection in a lady’s eyes, Paul? The mind boggles…can’t wait to find out what that’s all about!


      • Wanted: Sam Bass will be out in January. It is the start of a fun-read short novel series with cross-overs in police/crime and (be still my heart) a little romance. Go figure. It’s been fun so far.


  7. First of all, congrats on your upcoming release! That’s so exciting. Second, how you feel about the Wyoming landscape is exactly how I feel about the west coast of Canada. I loved how you explained the scenery’s effect on you. I get it. And third, your novella sounds fantastic. I loved the blurb and excerpt.


    • Well, that’s three reasons for me to cheer and feel good. Thanks! The west coast of Canada is pretty spectacular–I wish more people cherished these landscapes before they disappear.


  8. My husband’s great-something-father settled in Western Kansas and all of his herd was wiped out in a blizzard, leaving him penniless. Some places in the big world hold a spot in our hearts we carry forever.


    • I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the blizzard of 1886/87. 60-75% of herds were sipped out in some areas of the west and it marked the end of the so-called ‘Golden Age of the Cowboy’ as well as open range. It’s truly an unforgiving landscape. Thanks for sharing that.


  9. Love this book already!!! I can’t wait to read it. Your description of your feelings about that land so mirror my feelings about the pack station that I worked at and wrote about in my book. There is something about that ancient land that resonates deep in your soul. You can’t escape from it. You are overwhelmed by it when there, and you miss it so when you are not. I totally get it! It is something so primitive that you almost can’t talk about it. Looking forward to this read!


    • Roni, I’m wondering where that pack station was, that you worked at? It’s rewarding to know that so many have the same feeling for the land I have; there’s hope for us yet, I think.


  10. Love the photos. That scenery would inspire me–and I write medievals !! Looking forward to you newest book. Best of luck!


  11. And–my mother’s maiden name was Cunningham. I doubt any connection, but still it caught my attention!


  12. Wonderful excerpt and congrats on your new release in the ‘Love Letters’ series! The setting is really beautiful and I’ve often found myself, when visiting historical sites, wondering what it must have been liked to live then.



    • Thanks for your tweet and kind words, Susan. ON the one hand, I’m distraught there are so many beautiful sites almost despoiled by sheer numbers of people, on the other hand if I had lived back then when there were fewer people around, I probably would have been distraught just trying to survive!


  13. Andi,
    I love the excerpt. You did good. I’m looking forward to reading the story. I certainly felt your love for the west in your words about that Wyoming land. I know the feeling. I have the same kind of love for a place in Montana where, paraphrasing Norman MacClean a bit: “A creek runs through it.”


  14. Kayden Claremont

    What lovely scenery. No wonder it inspired you. Looking forward to reading the book


  15. I love the pictures. It’s on my bucket list of places to see!


  16. Great excerpt, Andi! And good timing on having Dearest Darling come out just before the Women Writing the West Conference! May DD sizzle the ether heading for reader’s devices!


  17. Yippee! I’m celebrating your release with you…congrats, my friend! I so enjoyed your description of Wyoming…interesting how the ‘inconsequential’ feeling we get from places like your book’s setting, inspire us to do ‘consequential’ things. Happy sales to you, Andi! Rolynn


  18. Beautiful description of Wyoming scenery, have always dreamed of going there but never made it! And mail order brides are definitely hot right now! Yours is beautifully written.


  19. Hi Andi,
    Your post about the Tetons brings back memories and wondrous feelings about that very special place. I, too, was struck by the beauty in the isolation of the Cunningham cabin. Reading: “Overhead, clouds scudded, scoured the sky, leached the blue, threatened” is as fine a piece of poetry as I’ve read in a long time. Thank you for the gift and promise of your words. Wish I could be in Golden!


  20. I have never particular thought of visiting Wyoming, but the way you describe it in such elegant words makes me want to. I’m definitely adding Wyoming to my bucket list of places to visit before I die–hopefully 40 or so years from now. lol!


  21. Sounds like a great book — looking forward to reading it — especially since J Pierce Cunningham was probably my great-uncle, my grandfather’s brother! My grandfather, Joseph Cunningham, was born in the Adirondack Mountain region of New York sometime around 1870 and one of his brothers moved out west when he was about 20 years old. That’s all we know. Wish I had asked more questions when the older generation was still with us!


    • Thank you for your comment. I’m wondering where you live now, if your family came from upstate NY? I also wonder if you
      have read anything on-line about J Pierce Cunningham because both the National Park sites and wiki have quite a bit about it. He was, indeed, a very young man when he got to Jackson Hole and filed his claim and married. Have you been to the cabin? It is very desolate–they didn’t actually live in the cabin very long as he built a proper house, now demolished, but it is hard to imagine anyone living there through winter. It has a dog trot, which I would have envisaged would fill with snow between the two halves, not the cleverest design for a Wyoming winter. A ranger told me she had been up there at night with the coyotes yowling and it was very spooky. And there had been a gunfight there as well. thanks again for saying hello here.


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