The Desert Between Us

Written by Phyllis Barber
Review by Sarah Hendess

In Barber’s gentle but plodding novel, Geoffrey Scott leaves Kansas in 1856 to help build a road in the Southwest. Assisting the construction crew is a pack of camels the federal government imported for the purpose. When the project ends, Geoffrey Scott (he always goes by both names) and one of the camels drift into St. Thomas, Nevada, a Mormon mission settlement struggling to eke out an existence in the unforgiving desert. There he meets Sophia Hughes, the young third wife of a mercurial older man. Their attraction is undeniable, and the obstacles to their love seemingly insurmountable.

The backstory regarding the government’s decision to bring camels to the American desert is delightful. Readers will be fascinated and amused by the animals’ interactions with unsuspecting settlers. Unfortunately, the human characters are less engaging because Barber keeps the reader at an emotional distance. Rather than giving the characters thoughts and feeling directly, they engage in rambling, unnatural monologues. Sophia, especially, also repeats herself, ruminating over the same issues time and again.

Most disappointing is Barber’s failure to explore the nuances of mid-19th-century Mormonism, particularly that of plural marriage. Only about a quarter of all Latter-day Saints in this period practiced polygamy, but in the world of this novel, plural marriage appears the rule rather than the exception. Many young Mormon women became plural wives out of economic necessity. In the 19th-century American West, there were few economic opportunities available to single women apart from prostitution, but Barber makes it seem that all young Mormon women became plural wives simply because Brigham Young said they should. In doing so, she robs the real women of this era of their agency.

The information about the camel corps and Bleeding Kansas is interesting, but it isn’t enough to overcome the tired stereotypes.