When I was in high school in Salt Lake City, I sometimes went into the downtown Temple grounds of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While the Temple itself is closed to outsiders, everyone is welcome to visit Temple Square, as well as attend the rehearsals of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, in the turtle-back tabernacle. Often, I wandered into the grounds just to see the flowers; Temple Square has one of the most beautiful gardens in the West.
But what intrigued me most was the statue of a pioneer family with a handcart, a heroic-size bronze designed by Torleif Knaphus and erected in 1947. The statue shows a man pushing a handcart, his wife beside him watching over a daughter perched on top of the cart. A small boy is in back, pushing the two-wheeled vehicle. I knew a little about the Mormon handcarts, that the early converts had filled them with their belongings and pushed them across the prairie, because handcarts were cheaper than wagons. At the time, I was impressed with the intrepidness of these people, although I had no idea of the hardships they suffered. Mostly, I think, I wondered that a family of four had so little that it would all fit into the bed of a pushcart.
Only later, as I began reading and writing western history did I realize what a remarkable journey those faithful Mormons made.
I am not a Mormon, but since high school, I have been intrigued with LDS history, especially the history of the women. These converts, most of them poor, came to Utah seeking salvation and a better way of life. They left behind years of back-breaking work to follow their faith, finding when they arrived that living that faith involved nearly as much sacrifice and hardship.
Mormonism has a hard history. The religion’s founder was murdered, and his flock forced to desert their homes more than once to avoid attacks by angry mobs. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, the faithful fled Illinois in the dead of winter in the 1840s, camping in what is now Omaha. Many died or abandoned the church, but the rest followed Young to Utah, where they scratched the harsh soil to plant crops.
Nothing in Mormon history challenged the faith of these people as did the experience of the handcart brigades. The idea might have been a good one—walk across the prairie pushing your belongings. Most pioneers walked instead of rode in the ox-drawn wagons anyway. But the execution of the handcart plan was lacking. The carts weren’t ready and had to be made of green wood, and they fell apart. There were no way-stations with provisions on the trail. And worst of all, the last two of five companies that started from Iowa City in 1856 for the 1,300-mile journey to Salt Lake City left late in the year and ran into snow. The Martin Company, the last of those companies, lost between 130 and 170 of its 575 members, one in four, to starvation and the brutal cold. That compares with 42 in the famed Donner party who died.
When I began True Sisters—the story of four women who are members of the Martin Company—I wondered if I could write a novel about the tragedy. After all, these are not my people; this is not my religion. Was I being presumptuous? Moreover, did I want to write about such travail and deprivation, about suffering and death? Then I realized this was not just a Mormon story but a western story. And that story is not just about tragedy but about joy and faith, of people willing to endure the hardship for a better life. It is a story of sacrifice but also of love. And even humor.
Christine Fiore is moving ahead with plans for The Persian Pickle Club film. For information, visit www.thepersianpickleclub.com
I was concerned, as well, that some readers would not accept the book because I’m not of their faith. Would Mormon readers resent my intrusion into their history? I suppose that remains to be seen. But as a nonMormon, I believed I could bring objectivity to the handcart story. True Sisters would be sympathetic to the plight of hundreds of handcarters, but I would not feel compelled to write a faith-promoting book. Indeed, my story is not a glossed-over version of an historic event any more than it is an anti-Mormon screed. True Sisters is the story of men and women facing disastrous obstacles, some with arrogance and hard-heartedness, but most with faith and courage.
Life Without Parole. By Clare O’Donohue. Plume.
I love Clare O’Donohue’s sleuth, Kate Conway. Life Without Parole is even better than the first book, Missing Persons. Kate is a television producer, a little dumpy, a little jaded. She’s not one of those bigger (and skinnier) than life characters you can’t relate to. She is exactly like somebody you know, maybe you yourself, and that makes her real.
In Life Without Parole, Kate is hired to produce a series of interviews with life termers, killers who will never be released. At the same times, she’s involved in a TV program about the opening of a swank restaurant. Lo and behold, one of the restaurant backers is murdered, and Kate, drawing on what she learns from the lifers, sets out to find out who done it. The situation is complicated because Kate’s ex-husband’s girlfriend—the husband was murdered in the first book—is an investor in the restaurant.
I like books in which you learn something, in this case, about the “glamorous life” of a producer—long hours, bad food, low pay. But more than that, I love a good story, and Life Without Parole is that.
O’Donohue, by the way, used to be a producer of Alex Anderson’s quilt show on cable TV, and she also has a series of quilt mysteries.
The Man Who Never Died. By William M. Adler. Bloomsbury.
Like Casey Jones and John Brown, Joe Hill is an American mythic hero. He was a pre- World War I labor activist with the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW or “Wobblies.”) Perhaps even more important, he was the union’s troubadour, inspiring the movement with his songs, one of which gave us the phrase “pie in the sky.”
Hill was accused of murder, a charge he found so outrageous that he disdained helping with his defense, assuming he’d be exonerated. But he wasn’t. In fact, Hill was executed by the state of Utah in 1914.
Many historians assume Hill was guilty, but Adler makes a compelling case for Hill’s innocence. He was railroaded by corrupt politicians and judges and found guilty more for his labor activities than the trumped-up charge of murder, the author claims.
Hill became such an international cause célèbre, that President Woodrow Wilson was forced to intervene in the case. Hill probably could have saved his neck, but he refused to because he believed the cause was more important than his life. In fact, in a final letter to a friend, he wrote, “Don’t waste any time in mourning—organize.” —SD