on June 6, 2001
This book consists of a collection of 28 beautifully-written essays that focus on Mormon life and the wide range of Gentiles who lived in Mormon country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Stegner has made a broad range of topics fascinating: the basics of life in a Mormon community; the avid converts who moved to Utah from Europe and Hawaii; the notorious Mountain Meadows massacre; the bizarre Deseret Alphabet; the story of Short Creek, AZ, where a polygamist community, protected from the law by geography, flourished briefly in the early 20th century; the wild mining towns; Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch; John Wesley Powell's river explorations; a paleontologist who devoted his life to dinosaur hunting in the desert; and the story of Everett Ruess, who mysteriously disappeared in the desert.
Stegner, a Gentile, seems to have considerable affection for the Mormons and their accomplishments as well as the ruggedly beautiful landscape of Utah. Although the book was originally published in 1942, it is still fascinating reading for anybody traveling around or living in Mormon country who would like not only a better understanding of the history and culture of the people who managed to tame a desert that most settlers only grudgingly trudged through on their way to greener points much further west, but of the many others attracted to that same desert for fortune-making, exploration, crime, science, and glorious solitude.
on October 6, 2005
This book consists of several essays that address various facets of Mormon history and Mormon culture, especially in the West and in Utah, though many of the things Stegner writes about aren't Mormon at all but just take place in predominantly Mormon areas.
The author touches on the interesting Deseret alphabet--a bizarre, phonetic alphabet that Mormon leader Brigham Young tried to get all Mormons to learn--on missing artist-explorer Everett Ruess, on the settlements along the Colorado River, and on the effects Mormon culture had on local Indian tribes.
Stegner seems to really like and admire the Mormons, though he was never one himself, and his book is almost always fair, and at times even loving, to them.
This is an enjoyable read for anyone interested in these parts of the West, particularly in Utah and the Colorado Plateau. It's also well indexed and can be easily used as a reference. It's one of Stegner's best, for sure.
on February 16, 2009
As a non-Mormon, I have always been fascinated with a faith that has remained strong and isolated, even when it resides in the midst of much misunderstanding. Much of this secrecy seems to be intentional. In Mormon Country, Stegner breaks through a part of this secrecy and gives the outsider insight into who the Mormons are and how they live. There is not much about their faith, but much about their lives and society.
Since the book is now over sixty years old, it reflects a time that has been lost. It tells stories that may well have been first or second hand accounts of the founding of the Mormon Country. The writing is crisp and moves easily. This is interesting reading for anyone interested in getting a basic understanding of wh the Mormons are and how they live.
on May 11, 2014
My parents often mentioned Wallace Stegner when I was growing up in Utah. Stegner and I share some basic facts. He and I went to the same high school (many decades apart) and he was at the University of Utah, as were my parents -- as students and then as professors. My parents were raised LDS, but stopped going and became 'Jack Mormons' - Mormons officially still on the books but who have stopped practicing. My parents raised my siblings and I in a non-religious home.
Stegner discusses my great-grandfather Thomas Chamberlain. Chamberlain was my father's mother's father. It is evident that Stegner has done his homework.
Beginning on page 118, Stegner writes of Orderville and my great-grandfather, Bishop Chamberlain. Orderville was a communal living arrangement in Southern Utah. My grandmother spoke of it frequently, as she grew up not long after Orderville ceased operation.
"Orderville was more than a hundred miles from a railroad then. The terminal of the Denver and Western branch of the Rio Grande line -- called the ''Wooden Shoe line'' because the Scandinavian peasants working the fields in their sabots -- was at Marysvale. But it was not mere isolation from the world that let the communal village thrive where so many similar experiments in towns nearby failed miserably...
"No one could say that one got more than another, because skilled and unskilled labor were paid alike. There were no plutocrats and no charity cases, and for a long time, no bad feelings of any kind between members. When they founded their town, they were earnest for cooperation, so earnest that most of them were baptized into it. A new member was carefully quizzed by the board. Did he believe that the Lord had advised him to join this co-operative life? Was his family in agreement with him? Did he practice kindness and piety in his life? Did he have any debts? Did he swear or use profane language? Did he break the Word of Wisdom?..."
More questions were asked of those who wanted to join Orderville. If the petitioner answered to the satisfaction of the Orderville brethren, the brethren welcomed him in and turned his property into the community pool "and gave him a job, for which he received credit of a dollar and a half a day. His wife was worth 75 cents, as were his boys from 11 to 17. Daughters were not much of an economic asset. Between 10 and 13 they drew 25 cents and under 10, half that. No money, of course, ever changed hands. There was no money to change...Board for adults cost $50 dollars a year, with children's meals at about half or three quarters of that."
The family was also debited for their clothing, at a much smaller sum. At the end of the year, if they earned more than they spent, they gave the surplus to the community.
"A good many wives in Orderville were plural wives. (Bishop Chamberlain, for instance, had five.)"
Note: My great-grandfather Thomas Chamberlain had six wives, but one died before she had any children. He had 56 children from the five wives.
..."but there seems to be hardly a trace of the female bitterness that marred the domestic arrangements of good Saints in other quarters."
Note: This agrees with the record my grandmother and grandfather compiled, "One Hundred Years of Chamberlains."
In another section of the book, on page 116, Stegner describes the ritual at the breakfast table.
"By seven o'clock, there are people who are already through with their morning chores and who hung around as if waiting for something...Three rows of tables stretch the length of the dining room. It is rather like an immense boarding house, the plates neatly turned over the knives and forks and spoons. There are no tablecloths, but the wood is scoured soft and smooth and white. The Bishop, Thomas Chamberlain, waits until the room is quiet and then offers prayer. One more preliminary, the hymn, ''Lord, We Come Before Thee Now," and the last hurdle is cleared. The plates are turned over, the five cooks in the kitchen ladle it out and the six girl waitresses carry it in. The waitresses do their work quickly and with seriousness, especially the three younger ones, eleven or twelve years old, to whom it is a sign of growing up to be admitted as junior waitresses. People eat fast, do what is right, let the consequence follow. They push back by couples and threes and clear out. Eventually, Auntie Harmon, who is childless and hence is put in charge of the whole swarming multitude of children, gets the place empty and calls the kids."
Lunch and dinner follow a similar ritual, Stegner states. "Whatever he did (the Orderville community member), every member of the community had three times a day to sink himself in the common life of the community."
Stegner describes that community members got along very well together, especially compared to other communities and even though others might have thought this large dining arrangement might have seemed noisy or troublesome, the Orderville members themselves loved it and continued this practice until a flood ruined the ovens in the basement.
'Mormon Country' is a remarkable undertaking, and Stegner's research is impeccable. Although he was not LDS, he writes with insight and compassion and is nonjudgmental of the LDS world in which he grew up in Utah but was not a member of that faith.
This community is not at all like the current FLDS communities, except in one regard -- that both espouse plural marriage. In the 19th century, settling an arid region such as Southern Utah, where (Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks, Zion National Park are located) required an immense human effort to farm crops and to ranch livestock (generally sheep, as there was no grass to speak of with which to raise cattle). This immense effort could only be achieved with the multiplicity of hands that numerous wives could produce. At its most basic economic level, plural living was the only way to survive in a terrain that was hostile to farming.
Stegner's book should be given much more play, as it informs the reader of a long-bygone era, about which many readers have not had the opportunity to sample.
This edition is a nice presentation of a classic book. Though himself a "Gentile," novelist and history writer Wallace Stegner lived for many years in the Mormon-dominated country of the intermountain West. This book tells the story of this important cultural area in the western United States.
The book is hard to classify. It's not a traditional history, and certainly not an academic one because there are no sources or footnotes. Significant parts rely on oral history, while other chapters pass on anecdotes about famous people with wide circulation in the area. It's anthropological in some ways, but an anthropologist probably wouldn't recognize it as such.
Stegner was a novelist before he wrote history, and he knows how to tell a story. He's not a Saint but he's sympathetic to them as people. When he says something critical about their beliefs or culture, he qualifies it by pointing out parallels in Gentile society.
The overwhelmingly rural, agricultural society that he emphasizes has passed with urbanization. Yet one indication of his perceptiveness is that he identifies two small towns - - St. George and Moab - - as likely tourist destinations if they were ever discovered. The changes to those towns, and to Mormon Country and the United States, are a measure of the changes that have occurred since 1942. Even so, the book reads well and provides a great window into this cultural region.
on July 31, 2013
Mormon Country, first published in 1942, is my first Stegner work and I quite enjoyed it. Being a jack-Mormon in Utah, but with a strong sense of my heritage and love for my state, I was excited to delve into this respected look at the Mormon West by an inside-outsider. I also wanted to read it around Utah's unique state holiday, Pioneer Day (celebrated annually on July 24), which I did. The book is a collection of mostly unrelated historical topics which help us to understand "Mormon Country", which can be loosely defined as Utah plus the parts of surrounding states that border it. The topics, divided into those about Mormons and those about non-Mormons, consisted of some I knew nothing about and others I had discovered before, but all the stories were told in an entertaining way that made them a joy to read. As I travel around the state in the future, I think I will take Mormon Country along and share the relevant chapters with my family. I can definitely say I am now better educated about my land and my people.