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.

Guest post: Solitude

This is a guest post by Robert Robinson who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Utah.

Henri Nouwin wrote, “Solitude is the furnace in which transformation takes place.” It is only during extended periods of solitude that your demons reveal themselves, become known to you, and you name them — as you would a child. In the furnace the soul is hammered, tempered, and forged. But it is the loneliness of solitude that people fear most, making many tragic mistakes in its avoidance; however, it is through solitude that you learn to enjoy your own company and become comfortable with yourself, in spite of yourself.

For me, solitude is the natural order of things. I live alone except for my dog Touch, and although we have our conversations, they tend to be one-sided. Before I got Touch, I would go for months never speaking a word. I once startled myself with the sound of my own voice. I had been doing dishes and had decided to make myself a sandwich. I was spreading mayo onto a slice of bread when it flipped out of my hand and landed in the dishwater. I said, “Damn”, with great conviction, and it startled me as if somebody else had shouted in my ear. Now I talk to Touch daily, which keeps my vocal-cords from becoming petrified.

Fishing, especially fly-fishing, is a solitary pursuit. The mechanics of fly-fishing and the distance required between the fishermen preclude conversation. When one of my friends goes fishing with me I thoroughly enjoy the company and good conversation, but most of my fishing buddies are family men, and they go fishing in search of solitude and a break from the hassles of family life. Even when we make efforts to fish together, the conversations erode into shouting back and forth across the stream until we tire of trying to communicate and wander off to fish alone.

Antoni Gaudi, the architect of the Basilica Sagrada Familia in Barcelona Catalonia Spain, wanted the interior of the church to have the feel of a forest. He thought that man can feel closest to God in a forest and I think that is true. The facade of the Basilica reminds me of the small groves of pines that form where the pine forest gives way to the Aspens just below the timberline. When I see them, it’s easy to understand how the Druids came to worship trees, or why we think of Heaven as being above.

Living in the inter mountain west, wilderness and the solitude it offers is only a thirty-minute drive in any direction, yet, I have met people who have lived here all their lives having never been to the mountains. My trips into the mountains are not initiated by any desire to be spiritual, but by a desire to go fishing; however, once I’m there, surrounded by the beauty of the mountains, I feel insignificant. I think of the thousands of years it took to form the mountains, the thousands of years they have stood, and the thousands of years they will stand after I am long gone. I begin to think of my mortality and the door of spiritual awareness swings open. I no longer fear going through. I have shook hands with the demons, stared into their ugly faces, and took responsibility for them. I learned that I’m not such a bad guy in spite of them and consider myself a friend. The question is not whether to go through the door, but whether the Trout will take a dry-fly.

I have fishing buddies who seem to have an investment in my solitary life style—they tell me I’m their hero. They think that my solitary existence is some heroic statement against the establishment and not the end result of some piss-poor choices coupled with a desire to insulate myself from what had become a vicious cycle of pain and rejection. They don’t realize that after twenty years, the benefits of a solitary lifestyle were long ago reaped. So when I told them that an old girlfriend from high school was coming for a visit, they shouted in unison, “You’re screwed!” They walked off slowly shaking their heads—presumably to don sackcloth and sprinkle ashes on freshly shaved heads—and went home to their wives.

I don’t have the gift of prophesy that my friends apparently have, so I don’t know if my solitary existence is coming to an end. Perhaps my solitude will be snatched in bits and pieces now, but I know where to go to find it.

There’s a small creek that runs through a narrow valley surrounded by green mountains. Nobody fishes it because the fish are small, but they are the most brilliantly colored Trout I have ever seen, which tells me it’s a special place, a place of healing. It’s a place I would take a friend, a friend who had a broken heart.

Robert Robinson lives in Utah with his dog, Touch, and writes outdoor stories and some memoir pieces. He has been published in A. R. Harding Publishing’s Fur-Fish-Game magazine and is soon to be published in Game & Fish magazine. His work can be seen at Fly Fishing The High Country and as UtahRob on Tumblr. Robinson is a Vietnam era veteran, fisherman, writer, and role model for today’s troubled youth.