Literary Arts: Book Review
A Princess Trampling Through Liberty Park
Linda Sillitoe's The Thieves of Summer
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.
Up and Upcoming: To The North
Exhibition Listings in Northern Utah
Whitespace Contemporary UP: New Visions of the West. Conceived to complement the annual Pioneer Days’ Traces of the West exhibition, New Visions takes a fresh look at iconic western images and landscapes — through a contemporary lens. Some 20 artists from around the globe are participating, with works in many media represented: drawing, painting, photography, as well as glass, ceramic, plastic, metal and paper sculpture.
Bountiful/Davis Art Center UP: Nothing Flat. The only criteria through all the different media, is that the works of art be three dimensional. The combination of glass art, conceptual designs in fabric and found object, sculpture, traditionally made and designed rugs, pottery, carved and painted gourds and glass jewelry present a cacophony of color, texture, design and excitement.
Brigham City Museum UP: International Quilt Invitational Exhibition.
Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art UP: Man Up: Perspectives on Masculinity and the Male Form explores the visualization of masculine and feminine stereotypes through photos, drawings, and prints. AND: New Acquisitions 2013 features nine works of art recently donated to the museum by the late Joe Austin. AND: Enchanted Modernities: Mysticism, Landscape and the American West explores the role of the American West as a site for rebirth and enchantment, specifically through artists and composers who explored the visionary interpretations of the landscape in visual or musical form inspired by Theosophical ideas (see our review page 3).
Julie Nester Gallery UP: Chelsea James: Glimpses of the Unchanged.
Chelsea James paints abstracted, impressionistic landscapes. Utah County is her home, but she has recently spent a large amount of time in India. The natural landscape and city settings from her home and her travels serve as the inspiration for her latest work. AND: Nine Francois: Animalia.
Nine Francois produces close-up photographs of animals which are presented against a stark white background. The artist shoots up close – very close – with a wide angle lens, and frequently from below to get unusual perspectives. In describing this Francois says, “By isolating the subject against a nearly-bare background, and presenting these animals out of context, the innate power and beauty of their form becomes the subject of the photograph. In this way, these images can become iconic and transcendent.
Gallery MAR UP: In the Pathless Woods: a solo exhibition by Matt Flint.
JGO GALLERY UP: Massively Small, a group exhibit of gallery artists and invited guests working in very small dimensions.
Kimball Art Center UP: Dog Dogs, photography by Elliott Erwitt in the Main Gallery. French photographer Elliott Erwitt is known for his black-and-white, candid shots of ironic and absurd situations within everyday settings, and dogs are among his favorite subjects. AND: Spanning two years and 50 states, Greta Van Campen’s series American Travels gives us a collection of landscapes from across our country. Greta depicts everyday America in her contemporary style, finding inspiration in everything from the gable on a house, to railroad tracks in the city, from a dinghy on a peaceful bay, to a crane and power lines.