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These is my Words : The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine by Nancy Turner
I was given this book by my daughter who is very good at finding books written about places where I have been or am planning to visit. I read this after we were came back from the USA last year and it was such a wonderfully written book that I could really see Sarah and her family struggling across the inhospitable terrain with their wagon hoping for a new start in life. We had spent quite a lot of our time visiting places like the Oregon trail Centre in Montpelier in Idaho, Scott's Bluff and Chimney Rock in Nebraska and other places that were so important to the wagon trains moving west and so I could picture the kind of scenery described in the book. The only thing that is different about Sarah's journey is that they were moving from Arizona in the west towards Texas sort of south and eastwards which seems to be the opposite way to the wagon trains we usually heard about.
I have just been to Google maps and looked to see what this sort of journey would be like today. I picked Tucson in Arizona as a starting point and finishing in San Antonio in Texas. The route today is nearly 1000miles and Google reckon it is a journey that would take about thirteen hours in a car on the excellent highways that you find in the USA today. Can you imagine walking all that way often with badly fitting shoes and in the harsh winter weather? I really cannot imagine how they survived sometimes.
Nancy Turner lives in Tucson Arizona and was born in Texas so she knows the area she sets this novel in very well. She says this about her writing:
"Writing historical fiction is much like working on a term paper every day. My story is never far from my mind. I create characters by mingling traits of people. I love all my characters; too, especially those with complexity that makes them seem all the more real. I believe the locale of a story can be as much a part of the book as a character, and I use settings I know well enough to describe in detail."
This novel is her first and tells the story in diary form of a young Sarah Prine aged only seventeen when her family set out from Arizona to Texas and it is inspired by Turner's great grandmother's stories and memories. Turner's great grandmother,Sarah Prine's family lived and worked in the Arizona Territories at this time in history
Turner knows the area of Arizona well and does a great job of describing the dramatic and breathtaking landscape which she uses as a backdrop for her story which she tells in the manner of a true story teller. She describes event s and places so well that at times I could 'see' the wagon train on its journey.
These is my Words is the first book in what is now a trilogy. 'Sarah's Quilt' and 'Star Garden' continue the story of Sarah and her family. I did enjoy this one so will buy the other two in the near future when I have reduced my pile of 'to be read' books a little.
This is a story of a family told through the diary of Sarah. At the start of the book it is 1881 and the family live in Arizona territory in a comfortable (for that time) house and have a small homestead with a good herd of horses but there had been problems with drought so the father decided that they would take the horses and move to Texas where there was promise of better pastureland.
The family, Mum, Dad, Sarah, two older boys and a younger one set out with their wagon and herd of horses leaving all they know behind. The trail is arduous and along the way many suffered and died. Sarah tells of burying young children including members of her own family in an almost factual way but I found that all the more poignant. They were so busy just surviving that there was not really time to grieve properly.
Sarah is a girl but she is tough. She says at one point in the story; " A nice girl should never go anywhere without a loaded gun and a big knife." She is a cracking shot and even wins a gun by using her accurate shooting to the pride and slight embarrassment of her brothers. She saves a friend from rape by killing a couple of Indians and is very brave holding the family together when her mother becomes very depressed and suffering from shock.
I found Sarah to be a likeable character who is very innocent and naïve at times. She has no idea about the facts of life despite knowing about animals breeding. She is desperate to learn to read and write and is thrilled when they come across a wagon abandoned and full of books and uses these to improve her writing. We see this as the book progresses her writing becomes more educated and her grammar improves. She is a strange mixture of older than her years and tough while at the same time she has this rather naïve charm. She doesn't seem to notice when she is the target of a handsome young man's attention and finds him rather tiresome.
Along the way families lose children, husbands, wives and so many animals they lose count. There are happier events as children are born and couples get married. Meanwhile life went on animals needed to be fed. Meals prepared food to be shot, Indians to fight and graves to be dug. Life was hard and very busy and all this is recorded by young Sarah in her diary.
The story is set in the same time period as the Laura Ingalls Wilder books 'Little House on the Prairie' which are written for children and tell about pioneer life in the territories. Once the family arrive at their destination, albeit a different one from which they were originally heading, they file a land claim, well three actually, one for Mum, one for a brother and his wife and a third for Sarah. They then build their houses, then furniture meanwhile planting the pecan trees and tended the animals. Meanwhile quilts are made from scraps of old clothes, cloth rugs also from scraps, clothes are made and meals cooked. Those women were super humane in my view I really do admire their skills and amazing energy. While the Ingals Wilder books tell of life in these times and of the skills and other aspects they do gloss over the harsher realities that Turner in no way does.
WHAT DID I THINK?
The story moves at a pace and by the end of the first few pages I was hooked. I thought about the characters during the day and couldn't wait to get back into the book in bed at night. I really admired Sarah's strength and determination. There was nothing she would not at least have a go at. She suffered floods, Indian attacks, deaths of family members and even an attempt at rape and she still came back fighting.
Despite the fact the story is written in diary form it flows well and that does not make the story stilted at all. Initially the slightly ungrammatical style was annoying but after a while I stopped noticing as I was drawn into Sarah's story.
I liked the way we see things through Sarah's eyes as she is telling the reader things as though they are sitting beside Sarah and chatting to them. It is easy to read and you can't wait to hear what is going to happen to the family next. You are willing for things to work out for them. Sometimes I found myself smiling at Sarah's descriptions and other times I was sitting cowering behind her as she found herself dealing with things I hope I never have to.
I loved the descriptions of the scenery, the way they made the quilts and rugs, the way Sarah invented scented soaps to sell using some perfume she found in an abandoned wagon. Little details that made the story come to life and added authenticity for the reader.
I will definitely be buying the next two books in the series as I thought this was a really good story and very well written. I was into the story after only a few pages and that is not something that I can often say for a book.
I love books set in this period in the USA and especially so given that we have recently visited some of the places passed through by pioneers on their way westwards.
I would definitely recommend this if you like historical fiction and books set in the USA. It is well worth the read and it gallops away with you as a great gripping story of a family struggling to survive in those times.
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