In honor of Sesquicentennial Plus One, I’m devoting the Speaking of Idaho blog to my family’s history during August.
Agnes Just Reid was the only living daughter of Nels and Emma Just. She was my great aunt, and I was fortunate to know her quite well. Years ago, it occurred to me how young our family’s pioneer history is, even though our history in Idaho began the same year it became a territory. Agnes, who was born in 1886, could have met someone who knew George Washington. As far as I know, she did not, but it is another illustration of how young our country is.
Because of Agnes, the Just and Reid families are so aware of their history and why we are dedicated to keeping it alive.
Letters of Long Ago is a classic pioneer story that has endured for more than a century, finding new fans within the family and outside of it with each of its four printings in 1923, 1936, 1973, and 1997. Reid used letters as a literary device to tell the story of her mother, Emma Thompson Just, who came to Idaho in 1863. The letters Emma wrote to her father, George Thompson, had been lost. Their re-creation for the book was essentially the recording of an oral history.
Emma Thompson Just approved each of the “letters” as they came off the typewriter, so we have reasonable assurance of their accuracy so far as memory would allow.
A year after the death of Agnes Just Reid, her niece, Mabel Bennett Hutchinson, who had illustrated the original book, found a similar manuscript. Although much shorter than the original, it still features the simple yet powerful writing of the first, again using the device of letters from Emma to tell the story of her earlier life. This time the letters were written to her “Cousin Lucy.” They were published in a limited edition in 2000 for the first time as The Lost Letters, by Agnes Just Reid.
How well does this account in this manuscript tell the early story of Emma Thompson Just? It is questionable whether Emma ever saw this manuscript. She died November 8, 1923, before she ever got a chance to hold Letters of Long Ago in her hands. Did Agnes Just Reid write both manuscripts before her mother’s death, choosing to publish only the years from 1870 to 1891? I believe that is unlikely. Letters of Long Ago reads like a book complete unto itself from beginning to end, as does The Lost Letters. It is far more likely that Reid was encouraged by the first book’s success and set out to write another about her mother’s early life. Why it was never published is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the author did not think it was up to her standards. Maybe she thought it was simply too short. If her daughter wrote the manuscript after the death of Emma Thompson Just, it did not have the benefit of Emma’s review. Keeping that in mind, it is still an important record. Agnes Just Reid knew her mother, as well as any daughter could. She had access to letters and diaries that would help her fill in the blanks. Most of all, the book is believable because Emma was an uncommonly frank woman.
The Lost Letters completes Emma’s story. It is a story of agony and achievement, pride and pain. Emma speaks to us from across a century through her richly talented daughter when Idaho was barely an idea.
I’m pleased to announce that The Lost Letters is once again available to readers in book form and as an eBook from Amazon.