New book offers few insights into life in San Juan
Apr 02, 2008 | 1711 views | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It isn’t often that a nationally released book is set in your own small community.

As a result, I was interested in reading Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land by Amy Irvine. The book tells of Irvine’s experiences living in Monticello and Long Canyon as an advocate for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The book was published in 2008 by North Point Press. Irvine has been heavily promoting the book, which has earned several positive reviews by a number of regional and national publications.

With heavy marketing and dust jacket endorsements by the likes of Robert Redford and Terry Tempest Williams, the book is likely to sell quite a few copies.

Irvine moved to Monticello soon after the suicide of her estranged father. She seeks to find meaning and solace in the canyon country and reconciliation, of some type, with her Mormon heritage.

Irvine is a competent writer, with an intriguing perspective.

She draws interesting contrasts between the prehistoric inhabitants and current inhabitants of the Colorado Plateau. She posits that the hunter and gather culture is inheritantly more sustainable on the Colorado Plateau than agriculture-based cultures, such as the Anasazi.

She also draws interesting parallels between the Mormon residents of the West and their sworn enemy, the coyote.

It is where Irvine makes a foray into the current culture in San Juan County that the book breaks down. Local residents are little more than caricatures, used as foils to reinforce Irvine’s worldview.

While the residents of Monterey were upset at John Steinbeck for his brutally honest portrayals, the residents of Monticello will likely be only disappointed with Irvine’s attempts. It is hard to be upset with a monochromatic cardboard cutout.

A recurring scene is of Irvine laying low while interacting with an unsuspecting local resident, then figuratively ripping open her shirt, ala Clark Kent, to show SUWA emblazoned on her chest.

I understand the need to allow writers some literary license. It is often necessary in order to move the narrative along. However, Irvine uses literary license simply to reinforce her worldview.

One brief example is a story she tells of the late Bluff writer Ellen Meloy, who apparently came to speak at a book club meeting in Monticello, only to find an empty library and an apologetic librarian. Irvine writes that the book club had boycotted Meloy’s work.

While that story may help reinforce Irvine’s portrayal of a small, insular community, the truth is that Meloy led a lively discussion, that evening, at a large meeting of the book club.

Irvine’s attempts at interacting with the residents of Monticello were shallow and superficial. The result is an analysis of the culture that is similarly shallow and superficial. This is particularly unfortunate considering she portrays herself as a sixth generation Utahn with a Mormon orientation toward the world.

While Irvine understands, on an intellectual level, some of the skeleton of Mormonism, she clearly has little understanding of the flesh and blood that makes it a vibrant culture to its adherents.

Irvine struggles and fights and rages through the tragic death of her father, the deterioration of her marriage, the domestic violence-tinged struggles with her new lover, an emotionally exhausting new marriage, the painful loss of a baby and the overwhelming birth of another; all the while eventually finding some sort of balance after moving from the area.

Late in the book, Irvine reveals that doctors have discovered that a complete lack of hormones in her body contributed to her emotional state. While she may have been surprised at the diagnosis, many readers of the book will see that outcome foreshadowed on nearly every page of Trespass.

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