Literary Arts: Book Review
Barara K. Richardson's Tributary
Winner of the 2013 15 Bytes Book Award for Fiction
Remarkable 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 on 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.
Up and Upcoming: To The North
Exhibition Listings in Northern Utah
Kimball Art Center UP: In honor of Veterans’ Week 2013, the Kimball Art Center is partnering with the National Ability Center to launch the Veterans’ Art Show. The exhibit is a non-juried exhibition and sale showcasing the artwork of both emerging and established veteran artists alike. All veterans are invited to submit pieces in any medium to be displayed in the Badami Gallery.|1| AND: Soldier Boy, Soldier Girl by Lynn Blodgett. The dramatically lit portraits feature two ‘soldiers’, one male, one female, dressed in the military uniforms of every war fought by the United States. While the technology and clothing change from image to image, the two models remain the same, symbolizing the constant human element of warfare.|2| UPCOMING: Park City Collects returns to the Kimball Art Center’s Main Gallery after a highly successful run in 2011. Park City Collects II will feature pieces from 12 diverse private collections from around Park City. Unique pieces from such notable artists as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alvin Gittins, Jeremy Lipking, Javier Pinon, Donald Morris, Henri Matisse and Annie Leibovitz to name just a few, will be exceptionally on loan.
MEYER GALLERY UPCOMING: A Utah native and University of Utah graduate, Adam Hansen creates work of painterly realism including still lifes and portraits.|3|
GALLERY MAR UP: Yonder, an exhibition featuring Bridgette Meinhold, Andrzej Skorut,|4| and Warren Neary
DISTRICT GALLERY UP: Primitive Pop, new works in steel and polymer by Rick Robinson. Robinson's Primitive Pop steel sculptures and prints mix the raw iconography of Native American Petroglyphs with pop materials inspired by the California Cool School – think steel, gloss, polymer, metallic & fluorescent paints.
BOUNTIFUL/DAVIS ART CENTER UP: 2013 Holiday Show and Sale
Eccles Community Art Center UP: In the Main Gallery, Landscape invitational featuring Brandon Cook, Aaron Fritz, Stephen Hedgepeth, Kristin Jamieson, Shanna Kunz, Bessann Swanson, Daren Wilding, and Eric Zschiesche with carved arts/craftsman pottery by David Socwell. The Carriage House Gallery will feature the annual Holiday Invitational/Boutique.
Gallery at the Station UP: Paintings of the west, featuring the tonalist landscapes of Jan Perkins and the watercolors of Don Weller, full of crisp drawing and vibrant colors.
Gallery 25 UP: Featuring new works of the beautiful Ogden Valley in a group show for the month of November. Also available will be the work of the late Farrell Reuben Collett, known especially for his wildlife painting, teaching skills and book illustrations. Through November.
WHITESPACE UP: Patrajdas Contemporary, a Utah-based contemporary art project, presents Corpo/ Ethereal, featuring blood paintings and 3D immersive environment by Jordan Eagles, sculpture by Emil Alzamora and glass drawings by Jeff Wallin. Exhibition focuses on the metaphysical intersections of body and spirit (see our review page 4). Shaw Gallery (at Weber State) UP: We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, features current work by 9 Oregon-based artists who embrace a cross-disciplinary approach to art making wherein the legacies of art, craft, and design merge in work that expands and explores the tactile, conceptual, imaginary, material, and critical potential of cultural production.
Brigham City Museum UP: Brigham City artists G. Russell Case and his father Garry Case have used thousands of tubes of paint and acres of canvases depicting a world of mountainous horizons, towering skies and meandering rivers. The painters’ depictions of these western vistas are mostly from local subjects.
Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art UP: Female + Form, a selection of works from the museum's permanent collection embracing a diverse range of forms and showcasing work by important women artists. AND: New Acquisitions 2013 features nine works of art recently donated to the museum by the late Joe Austin including works by Alison Saar, Charles Gaines, Dewain Valentine and Peter Shire. AND: LUX, exploring how artists have used light as a medium or subject, including several large pieces by artists featured in the Pacific Standard Time exhibition from Los Angeles who are considered to be leaders of the light and space art movement of the 1970s.