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Historical Mysteries

Winslow, Arizona - 1895

©1996-2013
womeninworldhistory.com

Seashells in the Desert

by Susan Tornga

Tessa Crane is a “Harvey Girl” waitress in one of the elegant Harvey House restaurants created to serve hungry travelers along the Santa Fe Railway lines. Her hard working life takes an abrupt turn when a sophisticated traveler on her way from San Francisco to St. Louis is found brutally murdered in an alley . Shortly after, the town’s beloved retired doctor is shot. The elder brother of her best friend Lupe is accused of both crimes. Convinced of his innocence, Tessa is compelled to find the actual perpetrator of these deeds. This proves to be hard because, as she muses, it is an unpleasant fact of frontier life that “Mexicans were often condemned before they had a chance to prove themselves innocent.” Such negative views also are revealed in the Harvey House policy to restrict young Norteñas like Lupe to kitchen, not dining room, work.

Although the book’s title is only thinly related to the plot, and repetitions in Tessa’s thoughts tend to slow the plot, there is plenty to discover in the author’s loving descriptions of high desert Arizona. Information on cattle roundups, life at Fort Apache, and the struggles of a female small ranch owner who tries to hold on against the encroachment of large cattle companies enliven the story. The huge impact of the Santa Fe railroad on the American West also is explored, in particular the growth of towns long the line, the availability of new food stuffs, and the influence of diverse travelers from the more cosmopolitan West Coast.

In the Author’s Note find information about the Harvey House restaurants and the little told history of the “Harvey Girls’, many of whom were attractive and well-educated young women willing to follow the company’s strict rules of behavior and dress in order to seek adventures in the American West.

See images of the Harvey House Girls.

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