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Read Your Way Through Utah

Written by The Anand Market

Updated on:

Read Your Way Around the World is a series exploring the globe through books.


Be forewarned: Utah is a state of mind, and the state of mind you adopt will determine the books you will want to read. As Brigham Young, the Mormon colonizer, said, “This is the place.” That invites the follow-up question: The place for what?

If you want to powder ski on “the greatest snow on earth,” this is the place. If you want to visit five national parks from Zion to Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef to Arches and Canyonlands, this is the place. And if you want to understand what psychic hold the Mormon Church has on those of us who live here, this is definitely the place.

Utah is a place of paradoxes: A state of hard-working people who are kind, industrious and community-minded, it is also a place of historic cruelty toward Indigenous people and those on the margins who do not comply with the dominant culture’s mores. It is a state of creativity, resilience and resistance. Now in drought, we are holding brine shrimp in cupped hands, making vows to return water to a shrinking Great Salt Lake.

Utah is always underestimated. It shouldn’t be. Prepare to be surprised.

This is a place of terrible beauty — of eroding and evolving beliefs, where serpentine canyons lead to windows carved out of stone framing a turquoise sky. The view of America’s red rock wilderness is disorienting. Leave your watches at home. Time here is told through geologic eras exposed by wind, water and faith.

It begins by reading the land. Start with “The Broken Land: Adventures in Great Basin Geology,” by Frank DeCourten, paired with Stephen Trimble’s beautifully penned and photographed “The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin.” For the high desert emblematic of Utah’s national parks, consult “The Geology of the Parks, Monuments and Wildlands of Southern Utah,” by Robert Fillmore. And for a more personal sense of Arches and Canyonlands, “Blow Sand In His Soul: Bates Wilson, The Heart of Canyonlands,” by Jen Jackson Quintano, is a spirited biography of Wilson, who advocated their protection. “A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country,” by David B. Williams, is an essential companion, with more than 270 plants and animals identified and described within their ecological communities.

Indigenous voices are strong and varied in Utah. Ute historian Forrest S. Cuch’s excellent “A History of Utah’s American Indians” introduces the eight federally recognized tribal nations located in the state. “Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge Religion,” by Karl W. Luckert, provides transcripts of oral histories made by Diné elders who shared traditional knowledge associated with Rainbow Bridge, one of the world’s largest sandstone arches, accessible by boat on Lake Powell. “Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears,” edited by Jacqueline Keeler, is an evocation of why these sacred lands matter to Native communities; it includes voices such as Regina Lopez Whiteskunk, Willie Grayeyes and Jonah Yellowman. Stacie Shannon Denetsosie’s stunning debut collection, “The Missing Morningstar: And Other Stories,” was recently published, to rave reviews.

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Begin with the classics, such as “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness,” by Edward Abbey, an anti-memoir on wildness set in Arches National Park in the years when Abbey was a park ranger there. Published in 1968, it can be considered a Thoreauvian counterpoint to the turbulence surrounding the Vietnam War. Then, for a romp of a novel with a bent toward sabotage, Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang” may inspire you — as it did the environmental group Earth First! — to reimagine the Colorado River without Glen Canyon Dam. If you find Abbey’s politics problematic, I suggest the saucy “Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness,” by Amy Irvine.

“The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest” and “The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone and Sky,” by Ellen Meloy, are sharp-edged works with quick-witted storytelling that use cultural tensions between the land and a politics of extraction — of uranium, oil and gas or coal — to complicate the scenery. Craig Childs’s elegant exploration of archaeology in “House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest” takes the reader back in time to pre-Puebloan cultures whose pictographs and petroglyphs tell stories on stone near the cliff dwellings they left behind. And his book “The Secret Knowledge of Water” could not be more germane to our current megadrought.

Two biographies create a bedrock for understanding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” by Richard Lyman Bushman, and “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet,” by John G. Turner. Both authors present these iconic figures in human terms. The charisma of Smith as a mystic and Young as a visionary pragmatist led the “saints” into a theology of western expansion only to find that they had a salt desert to tame. Two of my other favorite Mormon books are Maurine Whipple’s novel “The Giant Joshua” and Annie Clark Tanner’s autobiography “A Mormon Mother.” Both are tough and tender commentaries about how patriarchy and polygamy shape women’s lives as they endure heartbreak and deepen their spiritual strength. “Mormon Country” and “Recapitulation,” by Wallace Stegner, are wise works of historical intelligence, with rich renderings of Salt Lake City following settlement. And Jonathan T. Bailey’s “When I Was Red Clay: A Journey of Identity, Healing and Wonder is a courageous memoir of growing up gay in a rural Mormon community and avoiding erasure by finding refuge in wilderness.

Start by reading Juanita Brooks’s “The Mountain Meadows Massacre, an acclaimed history that recounts a series of attacks led by Mormon militiamen in 1857 that killed 120 emigrants on a wagon train bound for California. Led by the settler John D. Lee, the militiamen dressed up like Native Americans and convinced a few Southern Paiutes to join them so it would appear the tribe was responsible for the massacre. Judith Freeman, in her textured novel “Red Water,” broadens the story by focusing on the cracks in the lives of Lee’s plural wives. Farther north, “The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History,” by Darren Parry, a former chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone, tells a searing account of the deadliest slaughter of Native Americans in U.S. history. White settlers murdered hundreds of Northern Shoshone families in 1863 near the city of Tremonton and took their land. Parry traces the legacy of these deaths to the present moment, one of rebirth for the Shoshone people, with the restoration of this land as a sacred site of remembrance

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“Journey to Topaz,” by Yoshiko Uchida, is another shadowed remembrance. Published in 1971, it was one of the first novels for young readers about the injustices of the Japanese internment camps during World War II, which Uchida survived as a child. The novel, set in Utah’s western desert, where thousands of Japanese American families were held as prisoners, remains a haunting reminder of how indignities and dignity can reside side by side. The Topaz Museum in Delta, two hours southwest of Salt Lake City, is powerfully curated on the site of the Topaz internment camp by those who refuse to forget.

To expand your poetic state of mind, read “West: A Translation,” an illuminating book by Utah’s former poet laureate Paisley Rekdal that commemorates the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad. Asian, Irish and African American workers’ voices are brought into heightened relief in this collection, as Rekdal asks the question, “Is American history forward, progressive, recursive, or is it spiraling?” Katharine Coles, in “Wayward,” transforms science into poetry: “This is the world now. On fire. Letting go.” And in “The Salt Lake Papers: From the Years in the Earthscapes of Utah,” Edward Lueders asks, “Is there any land that is not holy land?”

The poets David Lee and May Swenson answer Wallace Stegner’s challenge to “create a society to match the scenery” through their land-laced poetry. Lee’s wildly amusing and poignantly crafted “The Porcine Canticles” will have you laughing and weeping within the stanzas of a brilliant storyteller. Swenson’s poems in “May Out West” show her precise attention to nature’s animated world: “Because all is movement — all is breathing change.” Line by elegant line, her erotics of place is discovered: “We wake in the other world, sky inside our eyelid.”

Nan Seymour’s communal poem irreplaceable is a “chorus of praise,” with lines from 432 local poets, for Great Salt Lake.

Traveling to Utah’s independent bookstores would be its own pilgrimage. The King’s English, run by Calvin Crosby and Anne Holman in Salt Lake City, is the quintessential great bookstore — smart, inclusive and good-humored. There’s even a book about it: “The King’s English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller,” written by its co-founder Betsy Burton, a former president of the American Booksellers Association. Weller Book Works, established in 1929, remains a beloved third-generation family business run by Catherine and Tony Weller. And Ken Sanders Rare Books is a must-see treasure trove of Western books and memorabilia personally curated by the literary monkey-wrencher himself, Ken Sanders. The climate activist Tim DeChristopher worked here while he was on parole.

Go east to Dolly’s Bookstore in Park City and pick up a copy of “Shaped by Snow: Defending the Future of Winter,” by Ayja Bounous. Head south to Moab and you’ll find Back of Beyond Books, where for more than three decades shelves have been full of used and signed books by loyal authors who inhabit the red rock country. In St. George, The Book Bungalow, owned by Tanya Parker Mills, is another local gem.

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Within Utah’s national parks, do seek out the visitor centers, where a cornucopia of natural history books particular to each park can be found. Nathan N. Waite and Reid L Neilson’s “A Zion Canyon Reader” is a perfect example.

Torrey House Press. They publish spirited books at the intersection of literature and environmental advocacy. Authors include Linda Hogan, Chip Ward, Betsy Gaines Quammen, Zak Podmore, Laura Pritchett, Pam Houston and Brooke Williams.

Politically conscious collections like the forthcoming Great Salt Lake anthology “The Once and Future Lake,” edited by Michael McLane, make a difference in the open space of democracy.

In a book: “Paradise Reclaimed,” by Halldór Laxness, the Icelandic writer who won the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature. In this strange and poetic novel of ruin and redemption, Utah and Mormons appear prominently.

In a place: a particular corner of the Gilgal Sculpture Garden. I will leave it up to the curious to try and find it!

  • “The Broken Land: Adventures in Great Basin Geology,” Frank DeCourten

  • “The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin,” Stephen Trimble

  • “The Geology of the Parks, Monuments and Wildlands of Southern Utah,” Robert Fillmore

  • “Blow Sand In His Soul: Bates Wilson, The Heart of Canyonlands,” Jen Jackson Quintano

  • “A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country,” David B. Williams

  • “A History of Utah’s American Indians,” Forrest S. Cuch

  • “Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge Religion,” Karl W. Luckert

  • “Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears,” edited by Jacqueline Keeler

  • “The Missing Morningstar: And Other Stories,” Stacie Shannon Denetsosie

  • “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness” and “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” Edward Abbey

  • “Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness,” Amy Irvine

  • “The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest” and “The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone and Sky,” Ellen Meloy

  • “House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest” and “The Secret Knowledge of Water,” Craig Childs

  • “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” Richard Lyman Bushman

  • “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet,” John G. Turner

  • “The Giant Joshua,” Maurine Whipple

  • “A Mormon Mother,” Annie Clark Tanner

  • “Mormon Country” and “Recapitulation,” Wallace Stegner

  • “When I Was Red Clay: A Journey of Identity, Healing and Wonder,” Jonathan T. Bailey

  • “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Juanita Brooks

  • “Red Water,” Judith Freeman

  • “The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History,” Darren Parry

  • “Journey to Topaz,” Yoshiko Uchida

  • “West: A Translation,” Paisley Rekdal

  • “Wayward,” Katharine Coles

  • “The Salt Lake Papers: From the Years in the Earthscapes of Utah,” Edward Lueders

  • “The Porcine Canticles,” David Lee

  • “May Out West,” May Swenson

  • “irreplaceable,” Nan Seymour

  • “The King’s English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller,” Betsy Burton

  • “Shaped by Snow: Defending the Future of Winter,” Ayja Bounous

  • “A Zion Canyon Reader,” edited by Nathan N. Waite and Reid L. Neilson

  • “Paradise Reclaimed,” Halldór Laxness

Terry Tempest Williams has written more than 20 books of nonfiction, including the environmental literature classic “Refuge” and, most recently, “Erosion: Essays of Undoing.” The recipient of the Thoreau Prize for literature in 2023, she is writer-in-residence at the Harvard Divinity School and divides her time between Utah and Massachusetts.