Desert Between the Mountains: Mormons, Miners, Padres, Mountain Men, and the Opening of the Great Basin: 1772-1789

Desert Between the Mountains: Mormons, Miners, Padres, Mountain Men, and the Opening of the Great Basin: 1772-1789

by Michael S. Durham, Dietrich Dorner

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The most remarkable thing about this fact-filled history of the early days in the great basin of land that lies between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains in present-day Utah and Nevada is how easy it is to read. Durham, author of several volumes in the Smithsonian Guide to Historic America series, is a skillful researcher with an eye for colorful anecdotes. There are no surprises here, no new interpretations of history. Durham has a good word for just about everyone, and the nearest thing to controversy may be that he disagrees with Washington Irving's low opinion of a frontiersman named Joseph R. Walker. Covered are the early explorers (Father Francisco Garces, John Fremont, Kit Carson, among them), but the book hits its strideand its chief topicwith the arrival in 1847 of Brigham Young and the Mormons. The keystone of the volume is a long and admiring account of the Mormon settlement of Utah, and the history then moves on to conclude with the gold-rushers, silver miners, Pony Express riders and the railroads, which brought both the Irish and Chinese to the region. The book ends with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, which Durham sees as the end to the frontier and the Indian way of life, although Indians play a very small role in his story. This is well-written history at its most easygoing. Photos not seen by PW. (Sept.)
"Life" magazine correspondent Michael Durham recounts the story of the Mormon pioneers' search for an area in which to settle, their colonization of the Salt Lake Valley area beginning in 1847, and their various encounters with Spanish ecclesiastics, nomadic Indian tribes, fur trappers, and soldiers, weaving through it all a sense of the Great Basin's unique and enigmatic topography. B&w photographs. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
An adequate, if hackneyed, rehearsal of a century's worth of history in the Great Basin region from Durham (a longtime editor for Life magazine).

Durham's three-part narrative is not so much an original work of scholarship as an impressionistic synthesis of the state's history. This approach inevitably sacrifices depth for breadth. The book's publication is timed to coincide with the sesquicentennial celebration of the Mormon arrival in the region. But Mormons don't even appear until Durham has given us a hundred pages of Spanish explorers, fur-trapping "mountain men," trailblazers like Jedediah Smith, and a reprisal of the ill-fated Donner-Reed party. This history is admittedly important, but Durham breezes through it with little analysis and too many stereotypical characterizations. When he addresses the Mormon experience, he does so with a remarkable and welcome impartiality, but his attempt to address the complexities of Mormon polygamy is unpersuasive, and he offers nothing original except a one-line, unsupported rebuttal of the long-standing tradition that Mormons crossed the frozen Mississippi River on foot. The lack of citations, here and elsewhere, is irritating. But the book has its good points: The best chapter is undoubtedly Durham's recital of the incidents leading up to the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, when a Mormon-led party—feeling persecuted and mobilized for a possible battle with the US army—murdered more than 120 adults and children passing through southern Utah toward California. But just when the story becomes engrossing, Durham abandons it for another trajectory, exploring the opening of Utah via the telegraph, Pony Express, and railroad, and introducing still more strands to an already crowded narrative.

Durham is a fine storyteller, but he wants to tell too many stories. What's more, the lack of original research leaves the book seeming more like a recapitulation than an original or necessary work.

Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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6.43(w) x 9.57(h) x 1.19(d)

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