These is My Words:
The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine

by Nancy E. Turner
(ReganBooks, $14, PG) ISBN 0-06-098751-0
*****
Read this book. I can't say it any plainer.

These is My Words is a wonderfully evocative depiction of life in the Arizona Territories as seen through the eyes of a heroine as spirited, brave, and human as any in recent literature. The story features all of the trapping you've come to expect from a tale of the Old West cowboys, Indians, train robbers and wagon trains but is much more than just an adventure. Equal parts deeply moving love story and rich portrait of one woman's thirst for knowledge, These is My Words is honest, funny, and, at times, downright sad a beautiful reflection of the girl-turned-woman that is the book's focal point.

First time author Nancy E. Turner struck gold the day she found her great-grandmother's diary describing life on the rugged frontier. As the author herself says of the woman she met but once, "If I hadn't met Sarah Agnes, I would have sworn that my mother had made her up." The fact that she lived is clear; where the author chose to blend truth and fiction is less so. But if the real Sarah experienced only a tenth of what the book describes, than she was one tough cookie indeed.

The experiences of Sarah Agnes Prine read as a microcosm of life on the American frontier. We meet the eighteen-year-old, barely educated daughter of a horse rancher on a disastrous wagon train from Northern Arizona to Texas in 1881. The trip reads as a chronicle of what could go wrong everything from Indian attacks to snakebite before the Prine's reach their destination, only to turn back home again. That is when Sarah first meets Captain Jack Elliott, a roguishly brave Cavalry officer. Sarah, frankly, doesn't think much of him. But it is a relationship that is destined to grow and change over time, maturing with Sarah and adapting to the demands of life in the Territories.

Initially it is not a man, but a deserted wagon full of books that brings unbridled rapture to the heart of the young woman. "The wagon is a treasure chest and I am suddenly struck greedier than ever in my life," she says. "I'm trembling all over with excitement." This unquenchable thirst for knowledge will remain with Sarah all her days and become a legacy to her children.

Sarah's thoughts and feelings are moving and vivid and they captivate the reader. She holds nothing back. From her ignorance of the facts of life ("I am ruined" she writes after falling asleep in the arms of a soldier) to her abject terror while facing a rapist, to her unvarnished accounts of brutal Indian battles, she is always Sarah, always plainspoken, always telling it like it is.

Spanning the years 1881 1901, we witness the taming of the wild west through Sarah's eyes, heart, and mind. This is not a true "romance" in that the time is painted in romantic hues, buttercups and daisies anything but. This is an unforgiving, untamed land where a simple infection often resulted in death, and childbirth was about the scariest thing a woman could ever experience. You wonder how anyone survived. Yet despite the almost continual hardships she endures, Sarah remains true to her optimistic nature. She is bright and funny and the reader fully understands why she inspires such devotion in the people that she meets. She inspires it in the reader as well.

I have no intention of mentioning anything specific that occurs in the book, for one word alone would be revealing too much. There is so much to experience and feel that I wouldn't want the reader to be cheated out of any of it.

Not purely for purposes of critiquing the author's talent, do I find myself wondering where truth ends and fiction begins. Did Sarah truly experience all that the book details? Were her own thoughts as lucid and her own words as distinct as those we find on the page? In truth, I suppose it doesn't matter. Because one way or the other, it is through author Nancy Turner that the reader gains the privilege of knowing Sarah Agnes Prine.

And it is a rare privilege indeed.

--Ann McGuire


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