Thirteen-year-old Hindle Lee, her mother dead and her father on the run after leading the Mormons' 1857 massacre of a wagon train at Mountain Meadows, goes to work in a convalescent home and eventually takes on a career as an "eclectic physician of women's ailments." Her sister Lucitie travels to England and back and becomes part of a four-generation hairdressing dynasty. Through the comic, strange, and tragic stories of Hindle's patients, and through the authentic speech, sense of place, and experience of historical events that Kennelly re-creates for us, Salt Lake City of the nineteenth century comes alive. Drawing upon her sharp memory and meticulous research, the author takes us from ordinary households to millionaires' mansions, from wagons to motorcars, from brightly lit Main Street to the dark inner expanses of the old Constitution Building.
The stories of that wondrous past, made mythic through the mind of a little Australian girl, are handed down to Hindle's granddaughter Rosetta, who comes of age in the changing times of the 1920s. With a spirit hungry for knowledge, Rosetta becomes a keen observer of the workings of the world and the human psyche. She and her cousin Lavonne, working as beauty operators and never separated for long, must deal all their lives with the hard truths about men, women, and beauty, and with different kinds of fanaticism and violence. All these elements are drawn together in a final reverberating event that only an artist could make meaningful.
VARIATION WEST is an immense literary collage, with dozens of engaging characters and a wealth of both comic and tragic stories to tell. We see not only domestic life under Mormon polygamy, but also the sacrifices-including death and disfigurement-that women make in trying to fulfill society's expectations of female beauty; the unspeakable violence that men do; and how patterns laid down in the distant past resurface again and again. This book has all the wit, warmth, and storytelling genius of Kennelly's previous novels-but also the darker themes and more critical views that she was not able to express openly in that earlier, more reserved era.