“These is My Words” – July Book Club Selection
Do you need a great summer vacation book? One to lose yourself in? If so, then These is My Words – The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine 1881-1901 by Nancy E. Turner is the book for you. I first discovered this book several years ago and recently reread it with an ear for the family history included. The author wrote it in the form of a diary, based on her family memoirs, so it’s a perfect fit for our July book club selection.
These is My Words is historical fiction and a wonderful example of putting an ancestor in her place and time, the Arizona Territories of 1881-1901. Extensive research by Nancy E. Turner lends an authentic feel to the book. Sarah’s voice is clear and strong from the beginning to end. The book opens with Sarah’s first diary entry.
July 22, 1881
A storm is rolling in, and that always makes me a little sad and wistful so I got it in my head to set to paper all these things that have got us this far on our way through this heathen land. Its been a sorrowful journey so far and hard and so if we dont get to San Angelo or even as far as Fort Hancock I am saving this little theme in my cigar box for some wandering travelers to find and know whose bones these is. (p. 1)
The format of a diary makes us privy to Sarah’s thoughts, desires, and honest evaluations of herself. Sarah is unlearned at the beginning of the book and it shows in her language. But as the book progresses, so does her education and her writing gradually changes. The grammar improves as does her choice of words. Spanning a period of twenty years, we see Sarah marry, have children, establish a ranch, and vanquish a few bad men along the way.
The land becomes as much a character as the people. Set in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, the author writes from experience. Nancy E. Turner was born in Texas and now lives in Tucson, Arizona where much of the novel is set. Through Sarah she describes the harshness of the climate as well as the beauty of the desert.
We have had a short spell of heat and then cool again and the days are beautiful but the wind blows without stopping. Flowers are blooming everywhere across the land and every day the trees seem to have more and more leaves and flowers too. (p.84)
Family relationships can be tricky when writing family history fiction. Did our ancestor like her siblings? How did she feel about her parents? Sarah describes her family members in the diary and each character comes alive with unique personality quirks and vivid description. On her website, author Nancy E. Turner explains:
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.
Indian attacks, fierce storms, drought, bad men, death – it’s all there for Sarah to overcome. We often imagine our ancestors and some of the difficulties they experienced. As Nancy Turner gives life to the tales she heard from her mother and grandmother about her ancestress, Sarah Agnes Prine, we are given an example of what can be done with a story and the imagination.
Finishing the novel, I felt like I had lost a friend. I immediately wanted to know what happened to Sarah. What other adventures lay in wait for her? How did she overcome other trials that would surely come living in the wild west? Luckily, the author has written two sequels to give us the rest of the story of Sarah Agnes Prine. Sarah’s Quilt and The Star Garden take us through the remainder of Sarah’s life.
What can we learn from These is my Words as family historians? The pure power of story. I have a feeling that the book has sparked great interest in the descendants of Sarah. If this were my great grandmother I certainly would be contacting Nancy E. Turner to find the basis of the stories and see photos.
If you have an ancestor who lived through a fascinating period of history, (and didn’t they all), you might consider writing a fictionalized account of their life. It doesn’t have to be a full fledged novel, it could just be a short story. As I’ve been writing fictionalized accounts of my dad’s stories, at times the story has just taken over and written itself. Learning more about the location and imagining how things might have been has brought me closer to my dad and my grandparents in ways I didn’t think possible.
Treat yourself this summer and discover the world of Sarah Agnes Prine through These is my Words. Then try your hand at writing your own story. I promise you won’t regret it.
Best of luck in all of your family history endeavors.