Mormonism is hot these days: everything from Mitt Romney's faith careening into national politics to the Broadway hit Book of Mormon. Add to that mix a new historical novel by Colorado author Barbara Richardson, whose book Tributary takes on the incomplete history of the Mormon religion. Set in a Utah Territory in the mid-1800s, the novel follows Clair Martin, a misfit in a Mormon frontier town, and shows what polygamy feels like from inside the fold. Her life becomes a quiet revolution as she untangles herself from a religion and culture she finds wanting.
While the writing is superb, it's the plot that offers the greatest strength of this book. Simply put: the novel does what art should do, which is to show us our lives with renewed clarity and better insight. Tributary takes the incomplete history and mythos of the West to task, and instead shows us some of the far more interesting and unexplored stories of American West - Mormonism, racism, women who don't need marriage or men. Beautifully written and engaging, this is a story of one woman and her refusal to cave into societal norms in order to seek her own difficult and inspired path.
The greatest problem with literature set in the Western US, of course, is the lure of falling into the Western myth. In most of our past literary history, the West has been portrayed one way: Men were the focus; they were quiet and stoic, they had a bunch of broken dreams, and they sure as hell couldn't be scared of camping alone at night. There was an absence of minorities or women, except to use them as characters who reflected something about the man.
Big changes have occurred, of course. We evolved. We quit talking about gunplay and instead started talking about other compelling stories. We quit being so romantic and nostalgic. New voices became part of our literary dialogue: voices by minorities and women, for instance, who had characters way more complicated and interesting than the single silent unafraid cowboy.
This book is a prime example of breaking the pattern of romanticizing the West. In that regard, Richardson, whose Mormon ancestors settled the northern Salt Lake Valley, is as brave as her protagonist - both are trying to capture a truer and richer version of what life was like for those outside the center of power-Native Americans, blacks, women - and to thus offer a more complete portrait of life in the American West. [End Page 88]