Book Reviews | Literary Arts

Barbara K. Richardson’s Tributary

We are pleased to announce that Barbara K. Richardson’s novel Tributary has been awarded the 2013 15 Bytes Book Award for Fiction. The author will receive a small cash award to recognize her achievement.
Our congratulations also go out to our other two finalists for the award, Miah Arnold for her novel Sweet Land of Bigamy (see a review here), and Matthew Kirkpatrick for his story collection Light Without Heat. (look for a review here later this month).

5280-TRIB-cover-shotRemarkable as Barbara K. Richardson’s novel Tributary is, it is most remarkable, perhaps, because it seems to be one of the first literary works in memory that positions the history of the Great Basin in the broader context of its time. Set in the years following the arrival of the Mormons to Utah, this sprawling tale told in the first person dignifies the region, if rarely the “saints” who people it, with the weight of its narrative. Here the territory is not just a placeholder in the story of the west—or in modern parlance, a “flyover state.” Its heroine, plucky Clair Martin—the woman with the red stain of a birthmark on her left check—is its product, and its curse, its orphan and its lay prophetess. Clair is a proto-feminist—not entirely likable—and, lucky for the reader, stained with much more than just the splotch on her face.

Of the many questions this Western epic raises in the course of its scene-shifting from Brigham City to the Mississippi Delta and back to the Utah/Idaho border is, what happened to those 19th Century Mormons who left their tribe?

Not since Frank C. Robertson’s gritty biography of a homesteading family titled A Ram in the Thicket has the story of this lost generation of the American West been visited so grippingly. Clair is fiercely independent, not willing to marry, though willing to love, not only her beloved Tierre— the nine-year-old black orphan from Louisiana who ends up returning to the high mountain desert with Clair—but a scheming sheepherder whom she beds. Clair is the first to say that she holds a grudge against the Mormons who raised her, trammeled her spirit, attempted to marry her off as a plural wife, and, finally,  looked the other way when one of them tried to rape her. And yet still she resonates, as humans tend to do, with the civilizing force of her youth even as she relentlessly critiques it, resists it and stubbornly makes it somehow her own.

Only “the continuous body of earth,” the landscape seems to give Clair sustained solace from psychic injuries that alternately torture and beguile her, that and the authenticity and spirituality of the Bannock and Shoshone, equally “marked” in her view as is Tierre (who eventually marries a Shoshone)—equally set apart with the “mark of Cain,” as is she.

The “white and delightsome” race of the righteous, a Book of Mormon phrase that has only recently been excised from scripture by apologists, sticks in her craw throughout this lyrical outing. And yet as with those who will follow her—outsiders of every stripe from what can seem like a hermetically-sealed and ideologically-driven community—Clair forms her family from those who, like her, have been “marked.” And the character of that nascent family, first in New Orleans but especially later near the River Raft Mountains in what is now Box Elder County, is a character yet to be fully formed and fully validated. (Might there be a sequel?)

Still, as with another Western spiritualist and mystic lover of the land—Terry Tempest Williams—Clair is too smart and too resilient to dismiss out-of-hand the clay from which she has been formed. Despite this novel’s ending with Clair’s initiation into Native ritual, I don’t believe Clair (or Richardson) is capitulating to the self-righteous rose water wash some insist—mostly Anglos—on splashing Native American culture. Nor is there a capitulation to bald pantheism. These don’t seem to be the answers to Clair’s dilemma based in longing for both independence and community. The beauty and rigor of Tributary stem from a tension, what author Levi Peterson referred to as “a fierce, grieving thing,” that rises uniquely in the people Clair can’t quite claim as her own any longer (if she ever could), but to whom she can never look away.

One of several books published by the new Torrey House Press, Tributary seems to have been largely overlooked by critics and the public since its publication last year. (The exception being, of course, that it was a finalist for the Willa Literary Award, named in honor of Willa Cather.) Is there a market for this stunning novel with the admittedly antique—sometimes arch–diction, 20-plus years in the making?

Perhaps not. Why?

For the devout the book isn’t certain enough in its moral (read: Mormon) purpose.

For the modern-day LDS apostate, it doesn’t burn the beast far enough to the ground.

For the “Latter-day Sometimes Saint” (to quote a poem by Carolyn Campbell), it’s offensive because it’s not a critique borne out of his or her own idiosyncratic complaints.

And for the outside observer living here in the gumbo of this self-described “peculiar people” with their lively but checkered history…will they also ignore Tributary under the old pretense that it is artistically inferior or worse, provincial? Bigotry not only knows no skin color; it knows no religion. And that, dear reader, is the cultural conundrum quite specific to where we live.

Perhaps only Clair Martin, the magisterial outsider/insider with the stained left cheek, could narrate a penetrating expose of just that. She’s already done a pretty brilliant job of getting the lay of this enigmatic land that is as much about an idea and its proliferating but largely reactionary counter-ideas as it is about rock and juniper, alkaline flats and big sky.


Tributary by Barbara K. Richardson
Torrey House Press (September 2012)
352 pages

About the Author
Barbara Richardson’s debut novel, Guest House, launched the first literary Truck Stop Tour in the nation and was a fiction finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award in 2010. In Tributary, she claims the land of her Mormon ancestors who settled the northern Salt Lake Valley. Richardson earned an MFA in poetry from Eastern Washington University. Barbara is also an avid environmentalist. She now writes and designs landscapes in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. Visit the author’s website:

Categories: Book Reviews | Literary Arts

3 replies »

  1. It’s a fine novel that should appeal to readers of the west, of Mormon culture and women’s history—and a bonanza for readers interested in all three. Your summation here is a great one, and the choice couldn’t be better.

  2. Tributary melted the rubber off the soles of my sandals when I read it about a year ago and I’ve been waiting for it to finally begin getting the recognition it deserves. Thanks, David Pace, for writing a review that reflected its artfulness, complexity and tenor. Richardson’s energetic, original, often poetic language along with the breadth of her vision and her surprising insights place her among the best of our contemporary novelists. Pay attention, elsewhere. Wake up oh ye sleeping diehards who want your western-set fiction simple and sentimental. THAT is what makes it regional. THIS is a novel of national importance.

  3. I admire Clair’s independence and her cobbling together her own unconventional life and family in a culture of strict definitions and roles. So glad this exceptional-and beautifully written-story is being noticed! Congratulations, Barbara Richardson!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.