"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.
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 partyfeeling persecuted and mobilized for a possible battle with the US armymurdered 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.