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.
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.
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.
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.