Sunday, June 03, 2018

Red Water (2002)

I liked Judith Freeman's novel about 19th-century Mormon life in Utah. It's a little bit historical—based on a historical figure, John D. Lee, and the infamous Mountain Meadow Massacre in which he participated—and a little bit experimental, telling his story obliquely through the stories of three of his 19 wives. Even each woman's story is told with formal differences. Emma gets the most space and speaks in first-person. Ann's is told third-person. And Rachel's is a series of diary entries. There's a brief scene of Lee's execution 20 years after the massacre, but for the most part the massacre and everything related to it are off-stage. I had to look up what it was and what Lee's role in it was. Freeman is a former Mormon evidently with little love for the church, but Red Water still feels fair in many ways. If anything it's about polygamy—implicitly, how it works and why it works. But it's also a really good Western novel. That's its chief strength for me. One of the promo blurbs mentions Willa Cather, and many scenes and landscapes are notably reminiscent of Death Comes for the Archbishop. But I also see influences of Mark Twain and William Faulkner, and some Cormac McCarthy too. Ann's section details a great episode that involves her tracking down horse thieves to recover two horses. She journeys from Montana to southern Utah attempting to get them back. The rich incidents on the way are there to be discovered. Ultimately, however, the novel tends inevitably back to the marriages with Lee and life with him and the other wives, and so it is mostly a novel about polygamy. Freeman is scrupulously fair to all of them, and there's also a sense she has researched a good deal. At some point the reality leaves off and her imagination takes the reins. These characters are complex, especially Ann, who appears to be a deeply closeted transsexual, with utterly no outlet in that time and place except the perfect one, the solitude of the landscape. Emma's comical fierceness and her unself-conscious worldliness make her surprising case with a literate and impressive confidence. Rachel is most the obvious victim of polygamy, as we glean the early fumbling attempts of Mormons to figure out and head off its natural problems before finally abandoning it—under pressure, but no doubt wisely. I'm not much of a polygamy believer either these days, even if I think I understand some of the problems it's trying to solve (now as furtive polyamory). Red Water: Come for the scenery, stay for the wonderful characters and stories.

In case it's not at the library.

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