In Our Own Words: The Lives of Arizona Pioneer Women
edited by Barbara Marriott

Fireship Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-934-75795-6.
Reviewed by Susan Schoch
Posted on 06/16/2012

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus; Nonfiction: American Women in Their Cultural/Historical Context

Olive Jewell was from Cochise County. Carmen Lucero was from Tucson, and Mary Ann McNeil from Navajo County. Each of them lived with the tremendous challenges of those parched and windy parts of Arizona during the years 1870-1890.

But for each of them, the story was different. Carmen grew up without education, and as a child became a contributing member of her family and the small community. She cooked, washed, sewed with skill, and cared for the younger children. She saw Tucson's first sewing machine when she was twelve. Carmen knew fiestas, cockfights, musicians from Mexico, and pilgrims from California.

Olive and her husband started out on a farm in Safford, raising cattle, hay and grain, and keeping bees, planting an orchard and building a house of cottonwood logs. They had a good start and had three children there. Then malaria took her husband's health. One of her children died. They moved, and moved, and moved again. Olive picked cotton, worked as a maid, did anything she could to keep the family alive.

Mary Ann, meanwhile, was married to a shoemaker who took his tools to the mining towns, repairing shoes in trade for anything they could use. Sometimes having no food for her children, she nonetheless made soap and starch and kept her children clean and their clothes carefully ironed. Mary Ann lived with the very real threat of Indian attacks.

In Our Own Words, edited by Barbara Marriott, includes details about 115 such Arizona pioneer women, each of them unique, though they had many experiences in common with Olive, Carmen, and Mary Ann. Today, 120 or more years later, when our challenges seem to be quite different, this collection is an opportunity to more fully comprehend what has changed and what we still share.

One of the good ideas that came out of the Roosevelt administration's efforts to put people to work, the Federal Writers Program sponsored the collection of "life histories" to create writing jobs and to document the country's expansion and varied culture. In Our Own Words is drawn from oral history reports by at least a dozen field workers for the Arizona FWP. Marriott's interesting description of the project's background and the interviewers involved explains the wide and somewhat bumpy variation in report styles and information included. For me, her method of organizing the book by topics is less successful, disrupting the flow of individual stories by breaking them apart. She does provide a name index at the end of the book, so that I was able to find all the included pieces of a woman's story if I was willing to flip back and forth to find them. And despite that small complaint, I was engaged and fascinated by the stories that Marriott chose. Individual voices and a scattering of pictures made the stories vivid.

From the Arizona aristocracy of the Udalls and Kartchners, to the most ordinary of ranch and mining wives, Marriott presents a range of women to illustrate the arduous accomplishment of survival, the tenuous grip on bare existence that was their common lot in the unbroken West. They rose to an opportunity, followed their husbands, their church, or their hopes, or saw a chance for something better. Their lives were full of labor and loss, danger and fear, often making do or doing without. There was laughter, many babies, staunch friends, and pride in colonizing a new country. It is an array of experience that brings us much closer to sister souls like Olive, Mary Ann, and Carmen, and stirs a greater appreciation of what they began.

A prolific and award-winning author of historical fiction and nonfiction, Barbara Marriott has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology that serves her well in that pursuit. Curiosity drives her interest in history and a move to the West stimulated many of her books, including In Our Own Words. For more, visit her website.

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