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  • The Redemption of Narrative: Terry Tempest Williams and Her Vision of the West by Jan Whitt
  • Katherine R. Chandler
Jan Whitt, The Redemption of Narrative: Terry Tempest Williams and Her Vision of the West. Macon: Mercer UP, 2016. 254 pp. Cloth, $29.

Jan Whitt has written the first monograph on Terry Tempest Williams. The Redemption of Narrative casts new light on one of the American West’s significant writers and dedicated defenders. This wide-ranging study examines eight Williams books (referencing others) in relation to T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, then places her work in the context of literary journalism and animal rights. Williams is so frequently allied with nature-oriented writers such as Barry Lopez, Mary Austin, or Linda Hogan that it is refreshing to [End Page 473] find her name linked with a broader set of authors including John Steinbeck, George Orwell, and Joan Didion. This and new foci are manifest strengths in Jan Whitt’s book.

In part 1, Whitt uses the first lines of Eliot’s Four Quartets as the titles of her four critical chapters. She does not intend an exhaustive comparison between Eliot and Williams; rather, she uses Eliot’s themes as starting points for more extensive analysis of Williams’s concerns. At times the parallels are underdeveloped or abruptly dropped; however, Whitt subsequently presents insights into less-explored dimensions of Williams’s writings. Yes, she incorporates issues familiar to Williams scholars, including merging genres, paradox, memory, the feminine, desert spaces, political action, and sacred knowledge, yet by comparing Williams’s texts with Eliot’s she provides insight into such matters as time, allegory, phenomenology, and other topics not as commonly discussed with regard to Williams’s work.

Chapter 1, “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future,” from “Burnt Norton,” examines Refuge (1991) and “the ways in which time both destroys and sustains” (236). Chapter 2, “In my beginning is my end,” from “East Coker,” surveys allegory as well as experimental narrative structures in An Unspoken Hunger (1994) and When Women Were Birds (2012). Thematically, the chapter investigates “the perilous and contradictory natures of existence in what is both a hostile and embracing world” (90).

Because they explore ideas familiar to Williams scholarship, chapters 3 and 4 are less rewarding. Chapter 3, “I do not know much about gods,” from “The Dry Salvages,” highlights in Desert Quartet (1995), Pieces of White Shell (1984), and Red (2001) “the symbolic significance of desert and other wilderness spaces . . . and the sanctity of creation in all its forms” (92). The chapter becomes more enlightening when Whitt incorporates references to The Open Space of Democracy (2004), Patriotism and the American Land (2002), and Testimony (1996), Williams texts rarely analyzed by critics. Chapter 4, “Midwinter spring is its own season,” from “Little Gidding,” “considers reconciliation, redemption, and restoration in Leap [2000] and whether it is possible for Williams to achieve them in Finding Beauty in a Broken World [2008]” (235)—again, familiar Williams themes. [End Page 474]

Pleasingly unexpected, part 2 of The Redemption of Narrative focuses on literary journalists and animal rights activists and so enlarges Williams’s critical territory. Although Williams has certainly been linked with these groups, Whitt does a satisfying job of discussing Williams’s aims beside writers with whom she is not commonly aligned. In chapter 5, Whitt compares Williams with literary journalists such as Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Tom Wolfe, and Sara Davidson. Discussing genre as well as social conscience, Whitt is drawn to the evolution of types of writing, noting that Williams, too, “is impatient with literary categories” (201).

The expanding circles in which Williams is placed are the valuable contributions of chapters 5 and 6. While always associated with environmental activists, Williams is less often linked with animal advocates. First investigating Williams’s concern with animals in the setting of the American West, Whitt subsequently analyzes animal killing in works by Hemingway, Orwell, and Roger Rosenblatt before returning to Williams and the role of animals and animal rights in America, particularly in western American literature. Whitt observes that “all four authors are among those who effectively employ animals in complex allegorical frames,” challenging readers...


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pp. 473-475
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