Andrea Reads America: Utah

Andrea Reads America map of books set in Utah
Andrea Reads America: Utah

Utah is a fascinating state. In the fiction I read, it is a desert land, isolated and desolate, where people go to be left alone, or where the government sends things to be hidden: polygamous Mormon sects, Japanese Americans in internment camps, and testing grounds for nerve gas and other weapons of war. I know from photographs and from visiting that Utah is beautiful — Arches National Park is in Utah. That desert beauty appears in The 19th Wife and The Last Cowboy, and it makes for an interesting tension with the ugly things that happen in those books.

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff Novel: The 19th Wife
Author: David Ebershoff
Setting: Fictitious town of Mesadale, UT

I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since I heard about it on NPR more than 10 years ago, and it was worth the wait. I didn’t know much about the Mormon faith before reading this book, and while Mormons may not appreciate that this fiction is where people might get information about their faith, The 19th Wife taught me much about the history of Brigham Young and Mormonism in the U.S. It also taught me the salacious aspect of what Mormons are often known for — polygamy — and how destructive it was for families and women, and how utterly patriarchal and cult-like.

I should clarify, in case it’s not obvious, that only the men have multiple partners, not the women. Men want to have sex with girls younger than their daughters, and they justify it by saying it’s the command of God, to multiply the people of their faith — the correct faith. Like so much of the BS that goes on in so many religions, it is based in fear-mongering so the people in power can keep their power and control everyone to serve their own needs.

Mormons apparently are not polygamous anymore, but in this novel, there are offshoot sects that still are. Part historical fiction, part modern murder mystery, The 19th Wife tells stories in two different genres.  It parallels a story of Brigham Young’s 19th wife (or 55th, depending on how you count), the true historical figure of Ann Eliza Young, and a modern 19th wife accused of murdering her husband. It was compelling and absorbing, and I really enjoyed the book.

When the Emperoror Was Divine by Julie Otsuka Novel: When the Emperor Was Divine
Author: Julie Otsuka (her grandparents were in an internment camp in Utah)
Setting: 1942 Japanese American internment camp in Topaz, Utah

When the Emperor Was Divine tells the story of a Japanese American family who, like all their neighbors in California, enjoyed a pleasant, suburban, educated life. They are refined, have 2 kids, a dog, roses, friends, white neighbors who show the kids the stars through his telescope.

In one day, all of that changed, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Their father was taken by police and never came home. The mother and children were forced to leave their home and all their belongings and their life behind to be locked in an internment camp in Utah for more than 3 years.

It was 1942. Utah. Late summer. A city of tar-paper barracks behind a barbed-wire fence on a dusty alkaline plain high up in the desert. The wind was hot and dry.

This was the United States. We locked our own people behind barbed wire fence because of the way they looked. It’s shameful.

The Last Cowgirl by Jana Richman Novel: The Last Cowgirl
Author: Jana Richman, local author
Setting: rural valley in Clayton, Utah

I loved this book! Set on a ranch in Utah, The Last Cowgirl is about Dickie, a girl who was a natural and at home in the desert and ranching life, but who hated her life on the ranch because it had moved her from town. Sensitive, capable, and quick to cry, Dickie rejected the lonely land for a traitorous best friend, and then later for a numb life in Salt Lake City where she didn’t look back to the land she loved in her bones, the people who lived there, and the tragedies that happened because of government testing of nerve gas nearby.

I miss desert rain, especially those first few drops that plop into a patch of alkali and bounce chalk into the air.

With family challenges, romance entwined with friendship, and gorgeous scenery of the unpopulated lands of Utah, this book had everything I wanted for a summer read.

Andrea Reads America: Texas

Map of books set in Texas
Andrea Reads America: Texas

To me, Texas is Lonesome Dove. The novel didn’t land the way Larry McMurtry had intended — as an anti-Western critiquing the misogyny and racism of the Western mythology. Instead it ended up being one of the greatest Westerns of all time. When asked by Mother Jones “You felt that Lonesome Dove was misinterpreted, that you’d intended it as an anti-Western. In what sense?”, McMurtry responded, “Would you like your menfolk to be that way? The Western myth is a heroic myth, and yet settling the West was not heroic.” This makes me love Lonesome Dove all that much more, and is probably the reason it’s the only Western that has ever resonated with me, other than True Grit.

I was eager to read other Texas books in addition to Lonesome Dove, and especially stories by Katherine Anne Porter and something, anything, by Cormac McCarthy. I attempted McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and just could not get into it, but I adored Katherine Anne Porter.

Lonesome Dove book cover Novel: Lonesome Dove
Author: Larry McMurtry, born Wichita, Texas 1936
Setting: 1860s Texas to Montana

If you don’t care for Westerns, you might not like this book. But then again, if you don’t care for Westerns, you might love it. I have no interest in Westerns. But I love Lonesome Dove.

It ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living. I doubt it matters where you die, but it matters where you live.

Perhaps the reason Lonesome Dove has become one of the most popular Westerns of all time is precisely because it is so unlike all the others in its subtle criticism of how the West was “won.” Perhaps the depth of the characters, and the treatment of all sides of the stories — from the impossible position for women in those times to the unjustness of stealing natives’ land — resonates with readers and that’s why it was such a success.

I think we spent our best years fighting on the wrong side.

I’ve read this book so many times, I’ve lost count. It is one of my top five favorite books: for setting, characters, dialogue, depth, humor, emotion. I love these characters like friends. Each time I read the book I am grateful for how long it is because it means I’ll get to spend more time with them. Each time, even though the story is set on the page as it always has been and always will be, I also hope they’ll make different decisions in the end.

Borderlands La Frontera book cover Book: Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
Author: Gloria Anzaldúa, born Rio Grande Valley, TX 1942
Setting: 1970s-80s Texas

Written in the 1980s in a mixture of Spanish and English, where neither is translated to the other, Anzaldúa’s La Frontera is a true blending: of Mexican, Indio, and white; of feminine and feminist; of Chicana and lesbian rejected by the race she defends against whites who denigrate it.

Anzaldúa breaks all the rules of her race. She is different, queer, rejects the macho debasement of women by Chicano/Latino men. This differentness is not part of the culture she was raised in, and she aims to change that. She argues that it is the blended people, the people of mixed race, who are the future. They will be more adaptable, malleable, are accepting and inclusive, because they aren’t just one type.

We need this to keep from annihilating ourselves.

The future will belong to the mestiza. Because the future depends on the straddling of two or more cultures.

Passionate and written by a women with a mastery of multiple languages, Borderlands/La Frontera gave me a new appreciation of what it means to be intersectional and how many things are stacked against you if you are woman, of color, or gay. And when you’re all three? You don’t fit anywhere. You are excluded everywhere. You have forge your own way, and the strength that requires is humbling.

The Old Order by Katherine Anne Porter book cover Book: The Old Order: Stories of the South
Author: Katherine Anne Porter, born Indian Creek, Texas, 1890
Setting: mostly Texas

I’ve been looking forward to Texas for a long time so I could read Katherine Anne Porter. I’d heard so much about her, and she didn’t disappoint. I love these short stories. They center primarily around a white Grandmother and her now free but formerly her slave, Aunt Nannie. At first the stories seemed painfully dated, with “good white folk” talking blithely about slaves and “Negroes” as if whites are doing them a favor and the black people in the stories are happy in their station, like in Gone With the Wind. These first stories made me feel all messed up inside because the writing and the stories are so good, but I can’t take the racism.

Then I came to a story from a black character’s point of view, and I realized oh, Porter gets it. She’s Doing Something here. She very powerfully shows the difference between white views of their black servants (that they’re friends and well-treated and they want to be doing what they’re doing) and the blacks’ views (get me out of this house so I can rest, get me to nighttime so I can rest, give me freedom to do what I want instead of doing the whites’ bidding).

Something that struck me in Porter’s stories is that each one contained one powerful visual scene that’s stuck with me, whether the grandmother riding her horse with her perfect erect posture, the whip with holes in it that pulled off discs of slaves’ flesh when they were lashed with it, the frightening clown swinging from the trapeze at the circus, or Aunt Nannie sitting on her porch smoking her corncob pipe.

Andrea Reads America: Tennessee

Map of books set in Tennessee
Andrea Reads America: Tennessee

I traveled to Nashville recently for a conference. Driving through Smoky Mountain national park and the small towns along the way, and then the highlight of my trip — stopping in Ann Patchett’s book store — made me excited about reading Tennessee. I didn’t end up reading a book set in Nashville, but I did read a great novel set in the Appalachians, along with one set in the western part of the state, in Memphis, and one set in the eastern part, in Knoxville.

Bloodroot by Amy Greene Novel: Bloodroot
Author: Amy Greene, born Morristown, TN
Setting: Appalachian mountains, Tennessee, Great Depression to modern time

Set on Bloodroot Mountain in Tennessee, Bloodroot is the story of a cursed family who suffer generations of fiery love with bad men, each passionate beginning ending in death or abuse. There’s a wildness in the mountain folk, especially Myra, whose story is central to the novel, and with each generation the children come closer to being good, loveable, and loving. The final two chapters, from Myra’s point of view and from a an abuser’s point of view, are th emost compelling. They kept me up late reading to finish the book.

Bloodroot excels at putting us in the mountains of Tennessee, with dialect and descriptions of nature and housing.

Chickweed Holler was a wild place with the mountains with the mountains rising steep on both sides. From Grandmaw’s doorstep you could see a long ways, wildflower fields waving when the summer winds blowed.

The cave smelled of algae and minerals and wet stone. Within the sun’s reach the limestone walls were mottled with moss, shaggy near the top with russet-colored roots like the pelt of some mythical forest animal.

This Side of Eternity by Rosalyn McMillan book coverNovel: This Side of Eternity
Author: Rosalyn McMillan, lived in Memphis, TN
Setting: 1960s-1990s Memphis

Set in Memphis in the 1960s with the sanitation workers’ strikes and the killing of two workers in a garbage grinder accident, the novel follows the family of one of the killed workers, and particularly follows the women who were left behind.

I love the way the author weaves in the news of the decades — two of the characters are nwspaper women — and how it impacts Memphis and these women’s lives. I also love how it’s a universal women’s story, written by a woman, in the sense that it has all the elements that the majority of classics written by men and about men have — those novels accepted as universal human experiences even though they are men’s experience and are not universal to women. In This Side of Eternity, the women have thier own needs, their own sexuality, their own expectation for intellectual stimulation. They also have their caregiving responsibilities, and their experiences include abuse, harrassment, and disempowerment by men. It’s not the best written book I’ve ever read, but I appreciated the grounded realism of it.

I read this book in one day, really in less than 12 hours, starting in the Roanoke, Virginia airport and ending in Amsterdam.

A Death in the Family Jame Agee Novel: A Death in the Family
Author: James Agee, born Knoxville, Tennessee
Setting: 1950s Knoxville, TN

Set in the 1950s in Tennessee, this is the story of a “normal” white suburban family: a husband who works, a good housewife who is dedicated to God, and two kids, a boy and a girl. The dad is fun and sweet, and he also drinks too much and drives too fast.

A Death in the Family shows the mundane day-to-day of the afternmat of a death of someone in the prime of their adulthood — too young to be taken and too many people depending  on them. It shows the days after for a spouse, for children, and interestingly, who gets left out becuase of God, and really all the percieved roles God plays.

That – that butterfly has got more of God in him than Jackson [the priest] will ever see for the rest of eternity.

Unfortunately, it didn’t captivate me enough to really focus on what it all means, though. I know there is more depth to it than I absorbed. I got bored by some of the long italicized seqeuences I knew the editors plopped in because there weren’t sure where Agee intended them to go — the novel was published after Agee’s death — as those passages didn’t make sense to me. I could tell the book was good and literary, I just wasn’t that into it.