Variation West

Written by Ardyth Kennelly
Review by Ann Chamberlin

This massive, sweeping saga may be said to begin with Hindle Lee, somewhere in the middle of fifty-odd children born to seven or eight polygamous wives of John D. Lee. Hindle barely remembers her father, so divided was he among households. But grown to womanhood, she does remember how the news came that he had been executed, sitting on his coffin, a scapegoat, some say, for the Mountain Meadows Massacre. This blight upon Mormon history, which most would rather forget, culminated coincidentally on September 11 (1857) with the slaughter by Mormons and their native allies of perhaps 140 members of the Baker-Fancher wagon train heading to California through Utah Territory.

We follow many women, mostly working class, and mostly Hindle’s descendants or the descendants of friends, as they lead their lives in the same downtown Salt Lake neighborhood through statehood, the end of polygamy, wars and the Great Depression, through loves, births and deaths. For great numbers of pages, the story seems unplotted, like life, but the details of each life—even when I lost track of the multitude of characters—were so compelling, often unnerving and bizarre but still made totally believable—that I never felt lost and couldn’t wait to read on. The language, a reflection of uneducated and sometimes stream-of-consciousness speech, might put some off, but I loved it and felt it also sucked me along. We never once enter a Mormon wardhouse or see the tangle of relationships we could find there, which would be perhaps difficult to get right and believable at the same time. Most characters we focus on are lapsed Mormons at best. But the tale slowly circles, like the doomed Baker-Fancher wagons, to a conclusion that strangely parallels the PTSD of the Vietnam War with the frontier mindset. Every one of the 760 pages is worth savoring.