Mary Hunter Austin set many of her early stories and novels in the desert and small towns along the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains where she lived from 1891 to 1906. From the Great Basin years came Austin's best-known work, The Land of Little Rain (1903), fourteen sketches describing the land and its inhabitants.
Born in Carlinville, Illinois, in 1868, Austin was ten when her book-loving father died, leaving a mother who offered her no emotional support. Her lonely childhood forced her attention and imagination inward to a presence she named "Beauty-in-the-wild, yearning to be made human."
In 1888, with the hope of a homestead, Austin, her mother and brother moved to the southern San Joaquin Valley, California. For a time, Austin taught school. In 1891, she married Stanford Wallace Austin and moved to Lone Pine, California. A mentally retarded daughter was born in 1892. Austin left Wallace in 1903, but did not divorce him until 1914. In 1905, after years of personal struggle with her health and finances, Austin placed her daughter in an institution.
In Land of Little Rain, Austin's close observation is a style of nature writing that tells the story of small things like water trails, plants, and animals; she does so with a reverence and respect for desert life. Austin knew that in the desert "the only unforgivable offense is incompetence." Fools perish. The Basket Woman (1904), Isidro (1905), The Flock (1906), and Lost Borders (1909) followed.
In Lost Borders (1909), a collection of short stories, Austin continued writing about the desert, emphasizing the ongoing struggle between the land and the people who inhabit it. Many of her characters are women coming to terms with lives controlled by men. Mrs. Walker, for example, walks to cure an unnamed illness; She is a woman not unlike Austin, who longed for equitable work, love, and a child. Austin also introduces us to Sevayi, the Indian basket maker, whom Austin used as a mentor in Native American knowledge and spirituality.
The success of Land of Little Rain brought Austin to the attention of such writers as George Sterling, Jack London, and Lincoln Steffens. In 1906 she moved to Carmel, California; from Carmel, she ventured to New York and Europe. As she met feminist-activists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Emma Goodman, her writing took on social and feminist themes. Her most successful novel from this era is A Woman of Genius (1912), a fictional memoir.
Austin was a prolific writer of short stories, novels, plays, essays, and periodical articles. In 1932, she published her autobiography, Earth Horizon, a retelling of her life in the third person. She was I-Mary, a persona that allowed her to step away from herself. Throughout her life, Austin worked for feminist and Native American causes. She met philanthropist and arts patron Mabel Dodge in New York and followed her to Taos, New Mexico, where Austin died in 1934.