This resonant novel is told in a multitude of voices, forming a family saga that is both a revisionist history of Latter-day Saint settlement in the American West and a personal journey.
Anderson draws upon her own heritage for this sweeping story. It begins with a long chapter narrated by a woman in her 50s, a mother and professor who cannot fathom where her life goes next: “I want my mostly-grown kids to get on with their own lovely ludicrous lives and leave me to salvage mine.…I no longer know who to be.” In search of herself, she leaves “Whitepeople Central, Utah,” for a small Arizona town where an aunt who died in infancy is buried. There she has the first of several intense visions of her ancestors, revelations of their lives that form the novel’s subsequent chapters. As the book’s genealogy chart shows, Anderson will lead readers through two centuries and half a dozen generations of a family that eventually joined the Latter-day Saint migration to the West. Their lives are filled with great hardship and loss, foolhardiness and danger—at one point, grown men leave an 8-year-old boy to guard cattle on a mountaintop amid lethal raids by the Shoshone—and moments of wonder and love. Anderson does not shy away from the often bloodstained relationship between the Latter-day Saints and the Indigenous tribes they displaced or the religion’s other forms of bigotry. She strips the romanticism from traditional notions of how the West was won: “I’ve spent a lot of time, post-Emersonian that I am, trying to figure out why it is that living in beautiful scenery so often turns human beings into violent fanatics. It’s not what Wordsworth predicted, or Thoreau or Whitman or Brigham Young. Hawthorne maybe.” In powerful prose, she lets a chorus of voices tell their own often surprising, sometimes heartbreaking stories.
People from several generations of one woman’s family gain vividly individual presence, recounting their lives in the American West as it moves from wilderness to modernity.