Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

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Overview

In the spring of 1983 Terry Tempest Williams learned that her mother was dying of cancer. That same season, The Great Salt Lake began to rise to record heights, threatening the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams, a poet and naturalist, had come to gauge her life by. One event was nature at its most random, the other a by-product of rogue technology: Terry's mother, and Terry herself, had been exposed to the fallout of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s. As it interweaves these narratives of dying and ...

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Overview

In the spring of 1983 Terry Tempest Williams learned that her mother was dying of cancer. That same season, The Great Salt Lake began to rise to record heights, threatening the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams, a poet and naturalist, had come to gauge her life by. One event was nature at its most random, the other a by-product of rogue technology: Terry's mother, and Terry herself, had been exposed to the fallout of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s. As it interweaves these narratives of dying and accommodation, Refuge transforms tragedy into a document of renewal and spiritual grace, resulting in a work that has become a classic.

As Utah-born naturalist Terry Tempest Williams records the simultaneous tragedies of her mother's death of cancer and the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Sanctuary, she creates a document of renewal and spiritual grace destined to become a classic in the literature of nature, women, and grieving.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"There has never been a book like Refuge, an entirely original yet tragically common story, brought exquisitely to life."
San Francisco Chronicle

"Moving and loving... both a natural history of an ecological phenomenon [and] a Mormon family saga... A heroic book."
The Washington Post Book World

"Brilliantly conceived... one of the most significant environmental essays of our time."
The Kansas City Star

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
From 1982 to 1989 Williams, a naturalist in residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History, suffered two traumatic events: her mother's unsuccessful battle with cancer and the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge by the rising waters of the Great Salt Lake. Here she attempts to come to terms with the loss of her parent and that of the birds in the refuge by juxtaposing natural history and personal tragedy, alternating her observations on each. In an epilogue that might well serve as the subject of another book, the author also maintains that her mother--and many other people in Utah--probably contracted cancer as a result of radioactive fallout from atmospheric testing of atomic weapons in Nevada in the 1950s and '60s. And she concludes that, even though it is not in the tradition of her Mormon background to question governmental authority, she must actively oppose nuclear tests in the desert. The book is a moving account of personal loss and renewal. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Williams, a naturalist at the Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake City, uses the rise and fall of Great Salt Lake and the fluctuations in wild bird populations that inhabit or migrate through the ecosystem as a personal metaphor. Her diary-like personal reflections cover such issues as helping family members through the traumatic process of living and dying with cancer. She also reflects upon women's place within the Mormon Church and touches on citizens' conflicting civic responsibilities as stewards and exploiters of the earth. Finally, she ponders federal responsibility for irradiating Utah land and people during 11 years of above-ground atomic testing. Williams's book is difficult to pigeonhole because she wrestles with a wide range of ethical questions in her struggle to find understanding. Her book may be of particular interest to public libraries in Southwestern states.--Laurie Tynan, Montgomery Cty.-Norristown P.L., Pa.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679740247
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/28/1992
  • Edition description: 1st Vintage Books ed
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 172,968
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Terry Tempest Williams lives in Grand County, Utah.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2004

    Better than most TT Wiliams books

    I'm not a fan of Terry Tempest Williams. I read her books because she writes about Utah, but most of them are just not good. THis book, however, is pretty worthwhile. Williams blends the story of her mother dying of cancer with the story of the Salt Lake flooding of the time (the mid-1980s). Neither story is told in a depressing fashion, Williams relates them as unavoidable if unfortunate natural occurences. The ~I don't know, cowboy or something, in her shows-though when she refuses to be overcome by the extreme frustration of working as a naturalist along a flooding shoreline or when arguing with a funeral director. She is hurt by the things going-on around her, but is never beaten. Nor does she crow about her victories or mourn her losses, she just relates them as events that happened and passed. She relates a face-first fall that exposes the skull beneath her face as though it happened to someone else, and jokes about the scar. I usually read her books then toss them out or give them to the library, but I've kept this one for years and re-read it often.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2014

    When Tempest-Williams stops discussing arbitrary, Animal Planet-

    When Tempest-Williams stops discussing arbitrary, Animal Planet-style facts about birds, she starts really getting to a more human, more interesting level. Unfortunately, she does not do this often enough. Her writing style, bolstered with what often feel like patronizingly simple sentences, also began to annoy me after only a short while. I don't regret reading it, but I wouldn't recommend it. 

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  • Posted April 1, 2011

    A Must Read - For anyone who has or is suffering a loss

    Terry Tempest Williams beautifully intertwines nature with family life, grieving, and personal reflection. Williams' words come together to create a work that is not only relevant to her audience but also resonates with the human spirit. We all suffer loss and experience healing though often times it still leaves a scar. These memoirs are intensely personal and provide an honest portrayal of relationships, between humans, between natural elements, and between humans and nature.
    From a literary stand point my first observation was basic though fundamental for the structure of the book. The table of contents does not divide the book into numerical chapters but rather sections. Each section bears the name of a bird and a lake level measurement. The measurements chart the rise and fall of the Great Salt Lake and connect nature to the "natural" flow of emotion and feeling as Williams describes the ups and downs, the inconsistency, of accepting the sight of her mother slowly dying.
    The section titled Wilson's Phalarope puts the lake level at 4206.15'. The first paragraph reads, "In 1975, the Utah State Legislature passed a law stating Great Salt Lake could not exceed 4202'. Almost ten years later, at 4206.15', Great Salt Lake is above the law." Williams then lists the five options the State of Utah proposed to deal with the issue bringing up the point that not doing anything is not an option. The moment captured next within the section depicts Williams with her mother eating a meal. Like the Utah Legislature her mother is dealing with a problem that was neither foreseen nor expected and then became the enemy when it made its loud appearance. One of many examples just like it, Williams here connects her personal life and feeling directly toward nature and forms a strong parallel and sense of loyalty.
    Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place is book that will calmly lead the reader through sorrow and discovery. Though the emotions it arouses may not feel calm at the time, personal reflection upon finishing the book will leave the reader considering his own life on a deeper level and finding solace in his own natural surroundings.

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  • Posted May 16, 2010

    Interesting??

    I had to read this book for one of my class assignments. I have read better memoir books about the same issues, however all in all it was a good book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2003

    A moving and delightful change

    This Book is moving and a down to earth twist on the usual autobiography. Terry Tempest Williams really captures the American spirt with her powerful descrptions. She really poured her heart and soul into the b

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2000

    Helpful

    This book helped walk me through many emotions associated with my relative's battle with cancer. Wonderful book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 28, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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