As a literary landscape, Utah often earns attention for our natural environment, rather than our distinctive characters. But three new novels, all set in Utah, draw upon our state's peculiar history while unfolding fresh and interesting stories.
These three books, written by women, all foreground female characters. While they range in tone and language, all are provocative in the way they explode and expand the category of historical fiction. Each book, too, deals in interesting ways with polygamy.
The biographies of all three writers upturn publishing expectations.
At age 63, Julie J. Nichols is publishing her first novel, "Pigs When They Straddle the Air," with Zarahemla Books, a regional Mormon publisher. Nichols, a mother and grandmother, lives in Provo, where she is a professor of English at Utah Valley University. She's a much-published scholarly writer and book reviewer, who previously co-wrote two books with energy healer Lansing Barrett Gresham.
"Pigs" unfolds in seven linked stories about the women in one complicated family, and her characters happen to be Mormon in the way they happen to be human. They are mothers and daughters, accidental lesbians and unconventional heterosexuals, believers and not.
Instead of explicating doctrine, Nichols' characters struggle to live and find their place in the world, relying on "a lot of different helps and resources," the writer says. "My characters reach out for and grab onto what will save them." What sets apart the stories are their beautiful, original literary prose and the characters' unconventional hopefulness.
Alison McLennan's "Ophelia's War" bears the most resemblance to traditional historical fiction, its themes evident in the subtitle: "The Secret Story of a Mormon Turned Madam." At 45, McLennan is a mother and former social worker.
"Ophelia" is the story of one young Mormon convert girl who is orphaned, along with her half-Indian brother, Zeke, in rural Utah in 1869. She's courted by a polygamist, and when her golddigger of an uncle comes to town, she and her brother escape. Ophelia heads north, protecting her mother's prized ruby necklace, and eventually lands in Ogden. In the frontier town, she relies on her wits to fend for herself before she meets a successful madam who teaches her the business.
Ella Joy Olsen, 45, is an avid reader who turned to writing fiction after her children were in school. Her debut novel, "Root, Petal, Thorn," is about a young widow who becomes obsessed with the previous residents of her 100-year-old Sugar House bungalow; it will be published Aug. 30, the first of two contracted novels published by Kensington Books.
'Pigs When They Straddle the Air'
Writer's background • Julie Nichols was raised in San Francisco and came to Utah on scholarship to attend Brigham Young University, where Eugene England mentored her as a creative-writing teacher. She worked as an adjunct writing instructor at BYU until the publication of several of her unconventional stories led to her contract not being renewed. In 2002, she was hired on the faculty at UVU.
Editor says • "I love how she's able to deal with complexity without having to rush to judgment," says Christopher J. Bigelow, the publisher who launched the Utah-based Zarahemla Books 10 years ago. "She's able to be open to look at problems from kind of a generous standpoint. I think most readers can find characters in the novel they can relate with, they are learning from, and that make them uncomfortable — and I just like that breadth."
The novel • "Pigs" grew out of the experiments with form that Nichols began working on while earning a doctorate at the University of Utah in the 1990s. At the time, she was a young mother, concerned about the plight of Mormon women. Even after Nichols had finished her degree and turned to writing a novel, a core of characters kept reappearing, centered on Riva Maynard and her daughter, Katie.
Nichols reworked and reshaped her original stories, and now they are linked to focus on several generations of Salt Lake City women. "They all had this line of concern that had to do with mothers and children, and what to do to make our lives whole when it is so hard. And yet we do it," Nichols says.
"On B Street in Salt Lake City, November in the Carter years, everything spelled safety: well-dusted furniture, vacuumed rugs, lint-free drapes, shining stove-top. Remote threats, distant uncertainties all bided their time," thinks Riva as a vaguely dissatisfied young mother.
In some ways, the stories explicate the recent past, as if 1970s feminism were another era, while the stories also have very contemporary concerns, about illness and abortions and ill-fated marriages and overlooked children and the veracity of healing powers. The descriptions of neighborhoods and schools offer a ring of familiarity for local readers, as do the glimpses of practicing polygamists and the language describing Mormon religious rituals.
Most of all, though, Nichols' characters are human in their interesting complexity, and in the hands of such an assured writer, where they end up is never quite expected.
Nichols is happy her characters have found a home in the form of a novel, but she's moved on to work on a more traditionally structured novel, with the working title of "The Book of Contested Visions."
Writer's background • Alison McLennan was raised in Boston, and her neighborhood provided the material for her first novel, 2012's "Falling for Johnny," a crime thriller that explored the human side of an organized-crime boss. A Kirkus reviewer termed it: "A dark, violent story with a heart."
She moved to Utah for the skiing, eventually earning a degree in social work at the University of Utah. After she and her husband settled in Ogden, she turned to writing fiction when her son entered school, then went onto earn an MFA from Pine Manor College. "Sometimes I think all of my writing is just my own therapy," she says of her tendency to explore her concerns through her fictional characters.
Editor says • Kara Kugelmeyer, strategy manager of Five Star Books, called McLennan's book provocative in the way it unfolds a story from the point of view of a strong female protagonist who happens to be a prostitute. "It's a unique story, with a variety of different plotlines," Kugelmeyer says, and its telling helps to add to the diversity found in Western stories.
The novel • After growing up surrounded by the history of the Revolutionary War, at first McLennan was somewhat dismissive of the history in her adopted state, told mostly through a glorified, faith-promoting lens. "It didn't tell you much about the hardships," she says.
Then, while poking around Union Station one day, she stumbled across the story of an Ogden madam who had purchased a gilded carriage from Brigham Young, who was experiencing financial difficulties after his 14th wife divorced him.
That historical nugget inspired her to create a history-based character who has a different take on sexuality, beginning with her shame after she is raped as a girl. "In my research, I read about a lot of women who spent most of their lives posing as men," McLennan says. "I think the women who came out West were probably really tough."
In a way, McLennan says she's not surprised to be writing historical fiction, as she's always been drawn to stories of the past. "I've always felt like when I'm in a place that's old, I definitely have a sensation," she says. "It's like being drawn into a story. It's strange."
Her character's story is complicated and intriguing, but ultimately proved too big to be contained in the covers of one book. McLennan is writing a sequel where readers will learn more about Ophelia's mother and the origin of the ruby necklace that serves as a talisman for a young woman on her own.
'Root, Petal, Thorn'
Writer's background • Ella Joy Olsen was raised in the Murray-Holladay area, and both sides of her family were deeply rooted in Utah. Despite her love of literature, she went the practical route and earned a finance degree from the University of Utah. She and her husband lived in Seattle and Savannah, Ga., before returning to Salt Lake City to raise their three children.
Agent says • "I see this book as book-club fiction, which means it's the kind of book that's entertaining, but also makes you think and want to talk about it," says Rachel Ekstrom, of New York's Irene Goodman Agency. "I think it's the right note between accessible and beautifully written."
The novel • As an avid reader, Olsen turned to writing fiction after her kids went to school. She took seriously the clichéd advice to write what you know when she began plotting a story that's rooted in a 100-year-old house, modeled after her Sugar House bungalow. "I was familiar with the way the light hit at different times of the year," Olsen says. "I so often have stood at my windows looking out on my street and have tried to imagine what the street looked like 100 years ago."
"Root" can be considered a twisty mix of contemporary storytelling and historical fiction. Its anchor is Ivy, a young widow who in her grief turns to renovating her historic home. Along the way, she discovers bits and pieces about the women who lived there earlier, all of whom nurtured the Blue Moon climbing rose in the garden.
In her inventions, Olsen admits there are moments of reality, such as the name of Ivy's across-the-street neighbor, George, modeled on her late neighbor. And Olsen tends her heirloom rose, which she planted from the start of a bush carried across the plains on the Mormon Trail by her great-grandmother's grandmother.
Readers will appreciate descriptions of the Sugar House neighborhood, as well as other local landmarks. Each of the women is of her era and each unfolds an unexpected story, including one unusual take on a polygamous relationship. "I would have gone to any of the time periods in the book and had a cup of coffee or tea with them," Ekstrom says, in praising the warmth with which Olsen created her characters.
Exploring the residents of one house gave Olsen a way to explore the layers of lived experience that eventually turn into what we know as history.
"I hope that readers will catch that mystery of thinking about people who looked out the same windows and walked the same halls," Olsen says. "And how when they're gone, their stories are gone."
By Ellen Fagg Weist