Sarah Dunster’s The Lightning Tree is an outstanding example of a tough genre in which to publish–Mormon-oriented historical fiction. To call it that, though, may be to limit its appeal. Mostly it’s just a really really good novel. Smart, honest, real, moving. Let me put it this way; if this review seems a bit incoherent, it’s because I’m short sleep right now. And the reason I’m short sleep is this novel.
It’s set in Provo, Utah, the town where I was born and currently live. The family at the center of the novel lives sort of on the west side of town, West Center street. I used to live more or less in that same neighborhood. The main character looks over at Squaw Peak, and imagines jumping off the cliff there–I’ve passed an idle hour or two in the same sort of reverie. And none of that is why I liked the book so much. It’s the story that compels.
And the main character. And she’s a fifteen year-old girl named Maggie Chabert, a convert to Mormonism, feisty and tough and insecure and disobedient and rebellious and proud. She’s not particularly nice and though she’s a hard worker, she’s bad at things girls are supposed to be good at. She likes to fish. She’s good at cleaning out the chicken coop, and milking the cow, and she’s a terrific rail splitter; good with an axe. I liked Maggie tremendously, and couldn’t wait to see what she’d do next.
She also has a deeply tragic history. Her parents both died on the trek West. She’s been adopted, along with her younger sister Giovanna, by the Alden family, who have two daughters of their own. She has an older brother, but he was apprenticed at their parents’ death, and is in Salt Lake City, which might as well be the moon. Maggie also had a baby sister, now deceased–her death, and how it happened, becomes a central mystery in the novel.
Maggie has two best friends, one of whom, Mariah, is moving to Salt Lake City as the novel begins–from that point on, their friendship is epistolary, unreliably so. Her other best friend–and favorite fishing partner–is Henry Clegg. The Clegg family is very fond of Maggie, and Mrs. Clegg becomes a central character in the book–a woman of extraordinary kindness and insight. Henry, meanwhile, likes to tease Maggie and taunt her and play tricks on her. That this might suggest a growing amorous interest on his part never seems to occur to Maggie. And so the budding romance between Maggie and Henry is another thread the novel follows.
But all the characters are beautifully drawn. Pa Alden, a quiet and haunted soul, but a deeply compassionate and honest man. Ma Alden, a hard, tough frontier woman, direct and straight-forward and not much interested in tending to the emotional needs of a vulnerable teenaged girl, a tragic figure in her own right. Uncle Forth, Ma Alden’s brother, a renegade and an apostate Mormon, with an endlessly cynical–but it turns out, not always mistaken–grasp on frontier politics. Liz Ellen Hoster, an orphaned teenaged neighbor girl doing her best to raise her two little brothers in a tiny shack they share with a cow.
Above all, Maggie has chores. Many many chores. She’s a hard worker–she has to be. Everyone is, in a frontier society where at any given time there was more work to do than hours to do it in. Where a reasonably successful family, like the Aldens, can show off by hiring three fiddlers for a wedding. Where Maggie’s fishing helps, because they can trade trout for salt pork.
The novel is set in Provo, Utah, in 1857. The year of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. But it’s not about that massacre, not really, but about how the MMM affected the lives of people in Provo, Utah, couple hundred miles to the north. It’s about Judge Cradlebaugh, and the continuing federal investigation into the massacre. And it’s about people living in Utah, and the way information about the Massacre came to them, in dribs and drabs, through gossip and innuendo and whispered stories in the dark.
It’s not enough for a novelist to research, say, the MMM. She has to create for us the atmosphere of it, the role gossip plays, the divisions and dissenters and arguments. Not every character in the novel is an orthodox Mormon, and the ones that are don’t strike us as kinder or better people than some of the dissenters. And Sarah Dunster nails it. She nails all of it, gets every detail either right, or at least convincingly plausible. It’s like chores. Ma Alden doesn’t just say to Maggie, ‘do some chores.’ The chores she assigns are specific, varied, and authentic.
So the book’s great. And what I’m really trying to decide here is whether to buy a copy of the book for my Mom’s birthday, or whether I can wait ’til Christmas. (Mother’s Day! That works!) Sarah Dunster’s first novel is terrific. Get it, read it. I couldn’t put it down.