Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land by Amy Irvine
Reviewed by Mark Bailey
Like Amy Irvine, I grew up in the Mormon Church, which today likes to be called The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-Day Saints. In Utah it is simply referred to as “The Church.” Also like Amy, I left the church as a young adult, and like Amy I love the wild and natural country of the West and the Colorado Plateau. Unlike Amy, I grew up outside of Utah and I am male. It would seem that these distinctions amount to a very different experience of living in Utah.
There’s no doubt the dominance of the Mormon Church in Utah effects what it is like to live here. In the 1980′s I was in my mid-twenties and launching out on a career in investment management. I recall introducing myself to a group of finance folk in Boston and being asked,
somewhat seriously it seemed to me, how many mothers I had. When clients would come from out of state to visit our offices in Salt Lake City they would seem half surprised that they could rent a car or grab taxi, that they weren’t greeted by wagon train. I liked to take them to lunch at the restaurant on top of the Hotel Utah. The maitre-d’ would seat us at a corner table overlooking the Mormon Temple grounds and the State Capitol building. He would say, “There, now you have a beautiful view of the Church and the State. I will let you decide which is which.” The statement had an element of truth but that is what made it funny. My guests got a laugh, and we relaxed and thought maybe it’s not really so strange here. It wasn’t unusually hard to do business from Salt Lake.
In Amy Irvine’s memoir, we learn that she had a hard time laughing about growing up in Utah. I thought about my old clients reading what Amy wrote and how they would easily believe that the state was incorrigibly backward and parochial, that if a person did not conform to the faith he or she couldn’t survive here. Irvine recites a child’s Mormon poem about delighting in being different and offering to tell the reader what is true so the reader can be a Mormon too. She describes how her mother’s ranching family family felt in opposition to the rest of the world, that their relationship to God and to cows made it so they couldn’t be otherwise. Because her father was a non-Mormon, a “Gentile” in Utah, she was considered a half-breed. She tries to become a Mormon but feels too wild to fit in. She marries a yuppie but can’t condone yuppie values either. Haunted by her father’s suicide, she escapes to the deserts of the Colorado Plateau in pursuit of the solace of a fierce landscape, and of an exuberant environmentalist. There, in small town Monticello, she finds out what insular culture really is and feels ground to dust by it.
I started Torrey House Press to promote stories of the place, issues, and cultures of the West and the Colorado Plateau in particular. Irvine does a terrific job of doing just that. When she and her new husband are forced to go the Farm Bureau for a house loan, we learn how outsiders, particularly environmentalists, are treated as hostile aliens, and we are introduced to the somewhat bizarre goals of the Bureau. Irvine tells us how Fortune magazine regularly ranks the Bureau in the top 25 most influential special interest groups, how the Bureau sees public lands as nothing more than free range for domestic herds, and how it lobbies aggressively to weaken federal laws that protect public lands and species. The Utah branch goes so far as to demand that taxpayers pay for forage eaten by any form of wildlife and if forage deteriorates so there isn’t enough to feed the cows and sheep, the Farm Bureau’s solution “is not to remove the livestock, or to practice forage-and-soil conservation techniques, but instead to initiate a ‘reduction in wildlife, wild horses and burros.’” Illuminating.
Amy Irvine tells her story so honestly that I became attracted to her, thought that I would like her in person, and I hoped for a happy outcome. Yet she finds even those who love her alienating and slips ever deeper into a near psychotic depression. Finally, with just a page to two left in the book, we learn she had become drastically hormone deficient for most of her adult life and was wasting away because of it. She ponders whether her biology is not fostered by her repressive, paternalistic sociology. Maybe. I’m not an ex-Mormon woman in Utah. As an ex-Mormon man, I don’t find it so bad as to make a person ill. Recently my ex-Mormon wife and I stopped for a bite at the charming “5 Star Drive-in” in Gunnison, Utah. The joint is a converted pioneer home with a family style dining room. On the wall is a cloyingly sincere plaque advising us that, “The secret to having it all is believing you do.” Seems hopelessly sappy to this curmudgeon, but some of the happiest people I know believe just that.