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Winter 1996, Volume 13.1

Book Reviews

 

Great & Peculiar Beauty: A Utah Reader, Reviewed by Richard H. Cracroft
The Domínguez-Escalante Journal: Their Expedition through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, Reviewed by Jason G. Horn
Beyond the River, Reviewed by Bill McCarron
The Measurable World: An Erotic Urban Mystery, Reviewed by Patricia Truxler Coleman

 

 

Great & Peculiar Beauty: A Utah Reader edited by Thomas Lyon and Terry Tempest Williams. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 1995, 1010 pp., $49.95 (cloth).

Reviewed by Richard H. Cracroft, Dept. of English, Brigham Young University

Great & Peculiar Beauty: A Utah Reader is a welcome, hearty, sumptuous repast of Utah literature, spread out just in time for the centennial celebration of Utah's hard-won statehood. Editors Thomas J. Lyon and Terry Tempest Williams have collected nearly 150 poems, personal and imaginative writings by more than 130 Utah writers, into a splendid anthology which compares well with its very successful prototype, The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology, and immediately takes its place as a literary landmark in Utah cultural history.

Seeking to answer the question, "Does a writer's voice reflect place?"(1), Lyon and Williams sound the Everlasting Yea from atop the Wasatch and set about, in 1010 pages of Utah belles lettres, to make a convincing case. Eschewing the well-worn organizing and defining metaphors dear to the Latter-day Saint founders—"the House of Israel," Gathering to Zion," "Fleeing Babylon," and "Crossing the Plains"—the editors have hitched their literary prairie schooner to a fresh and utile "organizing principle" which transforms Utah's five topographically distinct terrains, possessed of "great & peculiar beauty" (Howard Standsbury, 1849), into five "literary provinces": "The Great Basin," "Urban Terrace," "Mountains," "Colorado Plateau," and "Dixie," and have shaped each section according to the variety of human and natural landscapes of the province.

Introducing each section in brief, lyrical essays centered in the natural history of the province, Lyon and Williams present, as in the "Dixie" section, a judicious selection of Dixie-centered writings, some familiar but most of them unknown or less accessible. "Dixie," for instance, begins with Brewster Ghiselin's poem, "New World," followed by the wonderful first chapter of Maurine Whipple's The Giant Joshua; historian Andrew Karl Larson's account of home industry in the Cotton Mission; Juanita Brooks's history of the tragedy at Mountain Meadows; the personal narratives of Martha Cragun Cox, Elizabeth Wood Kane, Catharine Cottam Romney, Will Brooks, Alfred Lambourne; contemporary accounts of life in Utah's Dixie by Claudia Boshell Peterson, Dianne Nelson, Lyman Hafen and Gine Sky; interviews with several second-generation Dixie-ites; and at the end the Dixie poems of David Lee and Susan Elizabeth Howe. It all adds up to a literarily and historically satisfying section.

Lyon and Williams, working from the premise that, "Our literature celebrates our landscape," have measured each selection against three criteria: every reading "should have literary value; it should suggest ideas or dimensions of feeling that transcend time; and it should tell a story"(2). An unstated fourth and overriding criterion is, of course, the editors' own vision as professing naturalists, writers, scholars, and sympathetic cultural commentators who are at an individual, religious, and academic remove from Utah's mainstream, middle American/Mormon majority. This distancing, together with the topographical overlay, enables a fresh look at the breadth of Utah's scenic and human landscape, from Fathers Dominguez and Escalante (1776) through Susan Elizabeth Howe (1995). Individually and in the aggregate, this book is a moving human document of "great & peculiar beauty."

The disadvantage of such editorial distancing is, of course, that some Utah readers will find the book unrepresentative of the Mormon majorityless from the fact that barely half of approximately 140 readings in the book are written by Mormons, than from the fact that even among the selections by Mormons only a few suggest the dynamic spiritual and religious power of the Mormon faith. Although the editors bemoan the necessity of omitting drama, science fiction, children's or young adult literature from the collection, it is other unexplained generic and authorial omissions which skew the tone and the representative nature of the book: LDS hymns, those touchstones of Mormon theology and history, are missing. The LDS sermon is slimly represented here by Orson Hyde, and not Brigham Young or other contributors to the remarkable The Journal of Discourses; the LDS journal, also sparsely represented, is an important means of insight into the struggles of men and women who were, as Maurine Whipple notes, "human beings first and saints only by adoption." Other omitted Utah writers who could contribute to the mosaic are Samuel Woolley Taylor, Hugh Nibley, Eileen Gibbons Kump, Marilyn Miller, Louise Plummer; anthologized poets Arthur Henry King and John Sterling Harris; Utah's best-known author, Orson Scott Card (whose Saints is among the best Utah/Mormon novels); and Gerald N. Lund, Utah's all-time best-selling author of The Work and the Glory saga.

A must for every library, this anthology does us Utahns proud in its celebration of the splendid geography of Utah land and the literary expressions of its inhabitants. This once-a-century kind of book is a humane landmark in the history of Utah arts and letters, a cherished legacy from first-century Utahns to us who stand at the threshold of the second century of statehood, looking back with respect to the accomplishments of earlier Utahns while anticipating those Utahns of the second century for whom we are resolved to preserve the "great & peculiar beauty" of this good place and its good people.

 

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The Domínguez-Escalante Journal: Their Expedition through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico in 1776 edited by Ted J. Warner and translated by Fray Angelico Chavez. Foreword by Robert Himmerich y Valencia. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995, 153 pp., $12.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Jason G. Horn, Dept. of English, University of Northern Colorado

Crossing over some "bothersome sagebrush stretches" and through some "narrow valleys of very soft dirt and small holes," we came to a "medium-sized river in which good trout breed in abundance" and which runs through a "very pleasant valley with good pasturages, many springs, and beautiful groves of not very tall or thick white poplars" (60). So writes Fray Silvestre de Escalante in his journal entry for September 21, 1776. Over two hundred years later, U.S. Highway 40 carries travelers through the same stretch of land, from Duchesne, Utah, to Strawberry Valley. However "Trout Creek" and much of its surrounding landscape, which Father Escalante thought ideal for settlement, now lie beneath the water of Strawberry Reservoir. Such juxtaposition of prior perception with current knowledge makes for provocative reading in this new edition of The Domínguez-Escalante Journal: Their Expedition through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Leading an exploratory party out from Sante Fe, New Mexico, Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez sought to discover an overland route to Franciscan missions in California. The expedition failed; though as its chronicler, Fray Silvestre Vélez de Escalante succeeded in recording a rich account of a land and its people. Originating from the field research of numerous scholars, this volume reclaims the expedition's experience and, through extensive explanatory footnotes, corrects the topographical inaccuracies of earlier editions.

In his introduction, Ted J. Warner reviews the literary history behind previous versions of the Domínguez-Escalante Journal and finds them wanting on several points. No original record of the expedition exists, so, relying upon a faulty 1854 version, later accounts suffer from poor translations, copy errors, and inaccurate notes. Working from the "earliest known manuscript copy of the journal," Warner and translator Fray Angelico Chavez provide a "definitive translation" that will allow readers to track precisely the expedition's route (ix). A glossary transposing geographical features and Indian tribal names into their modern equivalent further clarifies our understanding of the route.

Chapter headings and detailed maps indicating particular sections of the journey, along with the character sketch of the party's members

Robert Himmerich y Valencia provides in his foreword, complement Escalante's considerable narrative abilities. The journal entries tell the story of a strange land and peculiar people, and, in retrospect, their descriptions remind us of the fate of both. Escalante meticulously details his impressions and quickens the observations of Father Domínguez, the expedition's leader who, we quickly discover, places his vocation above the call of the trail. Saving souls was primary to the mission of the overland excursion, and Escalante faithfully records Dominguez's attempts to bring indigenous Americans within the dominion of Christian doctrine and Spanish authority.

Indeed the proselytizing by both Spanish priests provides the journal with a continuing tension and narrative conflict. While Escalante romantically portrays his Indians as docile children awaiting, even desiring, their own conversion, "without the least duplicity and with spontaneous and free will" (68), another picture escapes his frame, indigenous Americans with a healthy suspicion of Spanish missionaries. Native guides emerge from Escalante's accounts as especially wary, accepting the explorers' seemingly endless supply of glass beads and large all-purpose knives only later to abandon their charges at a safe distance from family and tribe. Rarely condemning their native hosts, Escalante can only record his admiration for such adroit handling of the explorers.

Against this shifting set of power relations, Escalante offers a vivid, steady impression of the land and its inhabitants. One of the more memorable descriptions centers on the expedition's experience in Utah Valley. From the site of the present city of Provo, Utah, the party crossed over the "hot waters upon the spreading meadows," through large groves of alders and poplars, "good and very abundant pasturages," and onto Utah Lake which offered "several species of good fish, geese, beavers, and other amphibious creatures" (71). The lake was home to the Timpanogotzis, a tribe of "fully-bearded" Indians known as the "Fish-eaters," whom Escalante singles out for their industry and becoming appearance. He had little use, however, for the much larger lake connected to this one, whose "harmful and extremely salty water" inhibited settlement around its shores by all but the most hardy of people (72). Salt Lake City citizens might yet agree.

This current edition of the journal will please both scholars and general readers. While it certainly "provides a benchmark for comparison in the study of the Mountain West" (ix), as Valencia points out in his foreword, the present volume, at the same time, provides a map for journeying out on the trail. Whether packing a tent or a book, in other words, readers will find their trip through The Domínguez-Escalante Journal an engaging enterprise.

 

 

Beyond the River by Michael Fillerup. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995, 252 pp., $14.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Bill McCarron, Department of Literature and Languages, East Texas State University

This is a novel about motion: Jonathan Reeves, failed college football player and failed high school teacher, is in perpetual motion and going nowhere. Literally and figuratively, he has been on the run all of his life. Beyond the River opens with a high school relay race where Reeves, always the bridesmaid, finishes second to Harry the Horse who has "twin tails of the broken ribbon encircle his big blue behind" (3). The opening chapter quickly and skillfully establishes Michael Fillerup's theme about a man on the run. And, as we shall see, Fillerup stylistically enforces this theme through carefully wrought metaphors.

However, Jon Reeves is no mere second-string jock. Thanks to the women in his life, Reeves enjoys intellectual runs at Shakespeare, Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Eliot. First, there is Nancy Von Kleinsmid (the "Albino Watusi" as Reeves' high school teammate, Keith Bernhard, labels her) who looks like "a Picasso rendition of an ostrich" (5), but who relentlessly pushes the reluctant Reeves toward becoming the writer he wants to be. If we, as readers, see Reeves struggling through his freshman year at BYU filled ever increasingly with self-doubt, we never really see what makes Nancy tick. She is a mystery woman who never really lets Reeves run to her or to her home.

Instead, Nancy marries Reeves' physical opposite, Buffalo Bill Watson, and hurtles to a pre-mature (and somewhat melodramatic) death when she dives into a river and becomes wedged between two boulders. Who is Nancy? Why does she do this? Nancy is as mysterious to Jon as Sarah was to Charles in Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. Not until the end of Beyond the River do Reeves and the reader catch fleeting glimpses of what made Nancy run: the fragments of poems, stories, and journal entries Reeves uncovers in Watson's basement trunk twenty-two years after the fact during a nostalgic trip back to his native Ponderosa, CA.

Reeves relishes the words from one of Nancy's poems dedicated to him:

The road is a river
eternally flowing, and
we are as slippery as eels.
Yet some tiger fear comes upon us!
Hurtling downward we burn.
Winter breaks out in tropical sweat
I reach, touch,
wondering why you are so dry. (231)

At long last, Reeves has run his final race with Nancy and goes beyond the river of his own personal conceit to an understanding of her and himself.

The second woman is Reeves' patient wife of many years, Natalie. The novel ends with Natalie's miscarriage of what would have been their fourth child. As Reeves races down the mountaintop in his weather-beaten Toyota to join his faithful spouse, he reminisces about his children and his wife. Daughter Rachel has survived brain surgery; Derek will overcome the taunts of his classmates about his thick glasses; older daughter, Val, herself a version of Reeves with her questions about her religion, will, we feel, succeed. Natalie, with her steady faith, is the rock upon which Reeves must rebuild his Mormon religion after many years of running and soul-searching.

Reeves, whose happiest memory is recalling his Mormon mission where he ran off to Esparanza, Mexico, to share the life of poor farmers, is constantly punishing himself in Beyond the River. He cannot hold a job, cannot dedicate himself to his writing, and is a walking insomniac. In the end, contentment comes through revisitation to old haunts and the values they resurrect. After visits with Keith and Bill, Reeves goes to a nursing home and—in another rather melodramatic move on the part of Fillerup—decides to bring Nancy's now-invalid mother into his own home. In a way, she will be the child Jon and Natalie have just lost. We sense that Jon Reeves will re-establish himself with his family and not die alone and unwanted as his physician father has.

Aside from character and storyline, the strength of Fillerup's novel resides in his deft use of metaphor at every turn. Reeves pities a beggar woman who has eyes that are "hard boiled eggs bulging out of cavernous sockets" (74). At one point, Jon sprints back to Mexico because, as he puts it, "I needed to purge myself of the opulent stink of California" (94). Always torn between spiritual agony and the physical allure of women, Reeves spots a sun-bathing younger woman whose naked breasts "were big, soft gourds, thickly buttered with coconut cream" (123). Reeves' lost vocation as a writer is lamented in Fillerup's strong prose: "Every word is torture, like engraving in stone with a toothpick" (175).

Fillerup's Beyond the River concludes with Reeves' acceptance of himself. Racing to rejoin his wife, Reeves prays for perhaps the first time in his life. He gropes, metaphorically, at rocks on the other side of the river which have "algae everywhere, long strands of greasy green hair" (250). But this time Reeves pulls himself ashore and, eagle-like, salutes the sky with the names of the two women who are most significant in his life: "Sonuvabitch, Nancy! Sonuvabitch, Natalie!" (252). Brief but sincere ejaculations of a recovered faith. Fillerup's novel is an accurate account of the doubts and fears that wrack our innermost soulsdoubts and fears which only love and prayer can overcome.

 

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The Measurable World: An Erotic Urban Mystery by Katharine Coles. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1995, 320 pp., $23 (cloth).

Reviewed by Patricia Truxler Coleman, Department of English, Westminster College of Salt Lake City

The publication of Katharine Coles' first novel, The Measurable World, is good news indeed for those of us who have long enjoyed her splendid, sensual poetry and short stories. Here she continues her forays into both the operation of the human mind and the capacity of language to capture and explore it. While the subtitle, "An Erotic Urban Mystery," which was her publisher's idea, is, in fact, misleading, the novel is rich in subtle, sensuous language which moves with such grace between the present and the past that it bears reading and re-reading.

It is true that the novel has an urban setting (Salt Lake City and its environs), that it deals at least in part with unraveling the mystery of who shot Pascal, the protagonist's estranged husband, and that it explores the sexual consequences—both straight and gay—of trying to live in a "measurable world." But it does much more, as well. It is typical of Coles' work that the nuances of language are more intriguing than those of plot, and this, her latest effort, does not disappoint.

It is safe to say that this novel is not plot driven. On the contrary, the story of Grace Stern's fluid movement back and forth between the safe, laboratory world of the scientist and the vital, capacious world of the artist unfolds as precisely, delicately, and deliberately as one of her orchids does. But it also unfolds as it would in the real world—by indirection. Hence, the reader always knows only what Grace knows, feels what Grace feels, sees as Grace sees. The writing here is rich, immediate, palpable, and even at times urgent. We find ourselves a guest not just in Grace's home but in her heart. And it is to Coles' credit that we feel uncomfortable, almost voyeuristic, there. For what Grace is discovering, we too are discovering, not just about Grace but also about ourselves and our worlds. That being sane in an insane place is, we all know, problematic. That it is not impossible, we learn in The Measurable World.

As the novel opens, botanist and university professor Grace Stern's world is coming apart. Used to a measurable world of fifty-minute lectures, two-hour labs, a grandmother clinically senile, and a heart-surgeon husband, Grace is thrust into the immeasurable world of lust and violence, of admiration and fear, and of hope and despair. She is, in short, unprepared for a world where, as Dan, one of her students observes, "metaphor is as real as anything else."

Set on the brink of the Gulf War in a politically and religiously conservative landscape, The Measurable World explores both the causes and consequences of colliding worlds. Grace, who is used to surrounding herself with politically active, liberal friends and who herself is a child of the Vietnam anti-war movement, comprehends neither the public's enthusiasm for, nor her husband's enlistment in, the Gulf War anymore than she comprehends his infidelity or her stubborn refusal to forgive him. If the clean, clear, and correct universe she has constructed for herself is incompatible with a world on the brink of war, it is even less compatible with a world in which her war-bound husband is killed, not in the Persian Gulf, but in a local parking lot.

To all this, add Grace's functionally senile grandmother, Imo, who is senile only insofar as she believes what she chooses to believe. Grace might have been able to handle everything happening in her public life had it not been so violently penetrated by her personal one. While the public Grace is a competent teacher, dedicated scientist, and attentive granddaughter, she is also a woman haunted by a student doggedly pursuing her with veiled threats of his own, along with bizarre predictions from a fortune teller. The fortune teller turns out to be Bliss, the live-in girlfriend of the student and the daughter of one of Grace's husband's patients who did not survive heart surgery.

What the novel explores masterfully is the way in which Grace's two worlds—the one she presents to the public and the one she reserves for herself—intersect. Where Grace used to be able to keep things separate, sort them out, compartmentalize them, she is no longer able to. Throughout this novel we are confronted again and again with the fact that the universe is chaotic when we seek order, but orderly when we seek chaos.

One of the most telling scenes in the novel involves Grace and her friend Rita, who happens to be a mortician. Rita invites Grace to the embalming of one of Grace's husband's patients. Passionate, unconventional, and wildly erotic, Rita goes about her undertaking business with customary indifference, while cool, controlled, systematic Grace observes weak-kneed and astonished. This particular scene, like so many in the novel, serves to underscore a number of Coles' observations: we are seldom what we pretend to be.

Coles has constructed a story of enormous subtlety, opening in the near-present, moving back into the past, and then forward into the immediate present. In this engaging first novel Coles draws us into a world as indifferent and real as this morning's breakfast, as violent and abrupt as this morning's newspaper, and as incoherent but hopeful as this morning's letter to the editor.

 

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