Linda Sillitoe. How good to see her name again on the cover of this posthumous novel, The Thieves of Summer. Many personal and professional memories of this outstanding journalist surfaced for me while reading the newly published recognition of her writing achievement. In somewhat eerie fashion, this book not only evokes the memories of yesteryear in Salt Lake City, but carries an echo of Sillitoe, the journalist, herself.
Sillitoe was one of Utah’s most respected journalists before dying in 2010 of an aortic dissection, following a long battle with chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS). She was 61 years old. A staff writer for the Deseret News and news feature editor for Utah Holiday magazine, she was nominated three times for a Pulitzer Prize. Best known, perhaps, for her extraordinary investigative reporting of the Mark Hofmann saga with Allen Roberts and published as the book Salamander, she was also a fiction writer and poet, often with Salt Lake and Utah — and the shadings of its dominant faith — throughout. The Thieves of Summer is her final work of fiction, four years after her untimely passing.
In these pages, she basically writes a tribute to the elephant that once lived in Liberty Park. Princess Alice, to be exact. With a composite of 1916-18 news clippings from the Salt Lake Herald and the Salt Lake Telegram placed at the book’s end, the reader can appreciate Sillitoe’s impetus to write a story about an elephant that one day left the job it had been given (of pulling out tree stumps at the park), ran free, and stormed the south end of Salt Lake by trampling everything in its path—barns, sheds, fences—like a “British tank.”
Sillitoe’s Princess Alice however, is a fictional creation who lives in Liberty Park in the sizzling summer of 1938. She is tended by her former circus trainer and now faithful and caring keeper, Hugo Stuka. After a short-lived elephant escape and rescue at the opening of the book, the reader is then introduced to some of the neighbors who live near the park: Nora Taylor, a teenager who exercises horses near the Park (and is incidentally based on the real-life poet, Emma Lou Thayne); Sol Niessen, the lonely man trapped in his close quarters and his obsessions; Lara Schatz, a 16-year old German émigré diagnosed with hysterical paralysis after her leftist parents died in an auto accident and her brother could not escape Germany or Heinrich Himmler’s office where he worked and where he’d been named Himmler’s ideally Nordic godchild; and, at the center of the story, the Evans family with its three curious “ABC Triplets” (Annabel, Bethany, and Carolee) and their older siblings, mean-spirited Joyce, who has a penchant for shoplifting, and Gary, who throws all caution to the wind and impregnates his girlfriend, Margie, who’s still in high school. One of the plot lines surfaces when the triplets each make a summer wish, two of them wishing to see the movie about the Dionne quintuplets, Bethany wanting to teach Princess Alice a new dance step and maybe even ride on her back.
The plot thickens when Sol Niessen abducts two waif-like children. With a tongue coated with snake oil, Sol makes his first conquest when he kidnaps Frankie Stuart, then Pearlann Jones, all of this leading to a widespread search for the missing centered around the environs of Liberty Park. All of this in preparation for a capture of the fair-haired Bethany.
This enchanting novel is full of the stuff of life and is a good read with a worthy plot to disentangle. While I think the best audience for this book is a young adult one, it is a delightful and nostalgic work that will please most anyone interested in the charm and simpler lifestyles of yesteryear.
Had Sillitoe lived to make revisions to this novel, I suspect she would have delved further into the psychology and “what if” analysis of Sol Neissen and his strange idea of putting problem children on the bus when all else failed, which seemed an incomplete thread. She also might have paid more attention to Joyce’s troubled self. This character is not exactly someone who will automatically “grow out of it,” as her father sighs in resignation, but exhibits some psychotic behavior with her plan to get rid of Margie, who has disrupted the calm of Joyce’s life when she moved into the Evans’ household to await the new, only-whispered-about baby.
But alas. Who knows at what point Sillitoe was in the writing of this, her last, novel? And which ideas or narrative threads had reached complete or incomplete development? All writers know about loose ends having to be tied up as soon as the time is right. Nevertheless, The Thieves of Summer is yet another fine contribution to the written word and the literary life of the city of Salt Lake, the state of Utah, and the world beyond its borders.
Thank you once again, Linda.
Phyllis Barber is the author of eight books, including a trilogy of memoir: How I Got Cultured: A Nevada Memoir; Raw Edges, and To the Mountain: One Mormon Woman’s Search for Spirit. She is the mother of four sons, a founder of the Writers at Work Conference, and a teacher in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program for many years.