This work of historical fiction begins in Arizona Territory in 1907 (Arizona was not admitted to the Union until 1912).
Mary Pearl Prine is seventeen, and getting ready to go to Wheaton College in Illinois to pursue her love of drawing and painting. Before departing, however, she receives an offer of marriage from Aubrey Hanna, 28 and handsome. Mary Pearl is inexperienced and naive, and she is confused by the attentions of this man she has just met. She agrees to his proposal but wants to hold off the marriage until after she tries out college.
At Wheaton, Mary Pearl finds that her forte is photography rather than painting. She also gets exposed to a way of life and group of people entirely different from what she was used to in the Arizona territory:
“What a wagonload of nonsense was life in this big city. Not a speck of interest in where their water came from, nor whether there was enough for their neighbors to eat. Just busy with doing things and having things I wouldn’t even know I didn’t have, which included crystal punch bowls and harp lessons.”
Still, she makes friends and learns a great deal. Throughout the year she writes Aubrey constantly, but only receives one communication from him in return: a deed to land and a packet of money.
Mary Pearl is grown up in some ways, such as when it comes to help taking care of a ranch and dealing with the natural hazards of the Southwest, but she is extremely unsophisticated in others, especially matters of the heart. Her only instruction has been from a book, Pride and Prejudice, belonging to her beloved Aunt Sarah. Mary Pearl’s mother had also read the book, and Mary Pearl thought it changed the way she looked at things. She seemed convinced that Mary Pearl ought to marry Aubrey, “a young, wealthy lawyer,” who could provide for her.
But Mary Pearl’s path was not destined to be a smooth one. After her discovery, while at college, of shocking developments at home that involved both the heartbreak of betrayal and the fear and threat of violence, Mary Pearl had to change her plans radically.
Eventually, she found she had “a much better recipe for life than what was in Jane Austen’s book.” She realized her family was more important to her than anything, and that she had to figure out how to accommodate her dreams into that framework. She also learned just what love actually meant for her:
“…love is not handsomeness or promises of adventure; it is not wealth or fine clothes or sashaying around society parties eating petit fours. Someone who loves you doesn’t ask you to be something you aren’t already, nor make you believe you’d never amount to a thing without him. Love is building a little cart for our boys to pull. Digging a hole for another apple tree. Fixing my stirrup at dawn. Putting up a shelf for my photographic plates. . . . Love isn’t about looks or money or even accomplishments. Love is a million little promises kept.”
Evaluation: Like the author Paulette Jiles, Turner depicts the aleatory nature of existence in the wild areas of the Southwest in the period after the Civil War but before statehood restored some sense of law and order. Turner’s writing is not as smooth as is Jiles’, and feels a bit clunky and forced at times. Nevertheless, the story is a compelling one, and has a great deal for book clubs to digest and discuss.
Published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2019