Zion’s Book Club Discussion of December 1, 2011
“Once upon a time, there was a determined young lady named Sarah Prine who journeyed with her family through the Old West’sArizonaTerritoryby rough wagon train. A tomboy who never knew that word, she beat grown men in shooting contests a la Annie Oakley. She endured every trial and tribulation ever experienced by pioneers. She experienced untold horrors and overwhelming sorrow and loss, found the love of her life, emerged stronger from all encounters, and managed to achieve an education and become a successful businesswoman. And, in so doing, she tamed her corner of the world and emerged victorious.”
Many ofZion’s readers felt that “These Is My Words: the Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine 1881 – 1901” could be summarized in such a fashion. This first novel by Nancy Turner was inspired by the exploits of her great-grandmother and grew from a college writing assignment into an engaging book full of wonderful descriptions of a lifestyle and time far removed from present day. While some readers felt Ms. Turner romanticized the events she portrayed, others felt she realistically captured the pioneer spirit. The hardships of traveling in open wagons across unforgiving deserts and mountains while constantly dreading (and experiencing) Indian attacks were vividly etched in the pages of this book. We readers wondered at the mindset and drive it took to abandon a home and family and set off into the unknown, knowing that some would not survive. In this world that grows ever smaller through technological advances, it is hard to find remaining physical frontiers that test the courage of settlers in ways such as this. Space travel was suggested as requiring a similar type of determination and energy.
Sarah was definitely determined and had energy to burn. Thanks to a prescient father who taught her “her letters”, she was able to continue to improve her knowledge of the world by reading everything she could get her hands on, including a providentially abandoned wagon full of books. The diary style of writing used by Ms. Turner so effectively in this book allowed the readers to literally see and experience Sarah’s progress as the vocabulary and spelling improved gradually. We admired Sarah’s prowess with a rifle as she defended herself and her family from attack and caught the eye of her future husband, Army Captain Jack Elliott. However, being a tomboy had its drawbacks since Sarah had no idea how to be the refined young lady she found in her books, nor did she recognize the Captain’s growing feelings for her. As one male Book Club member said, “This is definitely a woman’s book!” Perhaps that is so, but upon reflection, there was enough action, blood, and gore to certainly capture the male attention!
As Sarah grew into a young woman, we endured her disastrous first marriage and subsequent widowhood and welcomed the Captain back into the picture as Sarah rescued him when his horse had fallen and pinned him to the ground for two days. Again, how providential that this happened so close to Sarah’s house! With the diary entries, some of Zion’s readers found themselves trying to skip ahead if they saw Jack’s name in a coming entry. Truly, the style suggested something very much akin to a serial story that used to be popular in paperback form or the more modern version – a soap opera! So, naturally, our discussion touched on quite a few of those: the Cherry Ames R.N. stories, Nancy Drew’s exploits, Trixie Belden, the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys adventures, even “Ladd, A Dog”, as we went further back in time. We came full circle with references to Days of Our Lives and a few other soap operas.
When our duties and lives demanded our attention, the diary entries also enabled the readers to have no trouble putting the book down and then picking it up later to become engrossed again in the challenges of daily life in the latter part of the 1890’s. We all agreed we were not suited to living where merely walking out the door could lead to your early demise, nor would we have enjoyed the back-breaking work involved in homesteading. All the drudgery and danger was accurately depicted, but the fact that every challenging situation from Indian attacks to armed train robbers (including a veiled reference to Billy the Kid), to floods and plagues of frogs, to death from disease, dismemberment and childbirth had to happen to Sarah or her family was a little hard to swallow. Or perhaps we are jaded by our relatively easy life now and have forgotten how survival was so much day-to-day for our ancestors; how living with great uncertainty and possible loss can inspire greater appreciation of good times and improvements such as running water and inside bathrooms. Whatever your perspective, all ofZion’s readers felt this was an entertaining story that even evoked some tears at the end. Eight of us awarded it one thumb up and one remained neutral about the book. Several are planning to read another book by Nancy Turner, and we are glad she shared her family stories in fictionalized form with the reading public.