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for people who care about the West

A tribute to solitude and community: A review of Tributary

 

Clair Martin is marked, not only by the "purple-red stain" that spreads across her left cheek and on down her neck, but by being an orphan with a preference for solitude -- inconceivable to the Mormons of Brigham City in 19th-century Utah Territory, where she's deposited at just 6 years old. Valued only as a workhorse, she's passed from shrewish widow to indifferent widower. Then, at 18, Clair decides to take up a solitary residence in an old cabin. "I cooked whatever I wanted. I watched every sunset bury itself in the waters of the Great Salt Lake. I loved my life."

Colorado resident Barbara K. Richardson -- whose first novel, Guesthouse, was a finalist for the 2011 Eric Hoffer award for excellence in independent publishing –– spent 20 years delving into the lives of her Mormon ancestors to craft a compelling story set against a background of racism, sexism and Native American genocide. Clair, who recoils from the thought of becoming a fourth or fifth wife in Brigham Young's polygamous community, flees south, ending up as a laundress in a dilapidated New Orleans hospital amid an epidemic of yellow fever.

"I wanted to run," she narrates, "until the state of Louisiana ceased to exist, with its murdered leaders and hate-filled gentry and fevers caused by nothing you could name." Eventually, propelled by romantic betrayal, she does escape, but only after she's nursed friends through the hideous fever and adopted an orphaned African-American boy. An apostate friend's son has a sheep ranch in the desert, and Clair and her orphan set out west in search of a new life.

The landscape becomes as much a character as the men and women who populate Tributary. As wild and isolating as the determined, defiant Clair, the prairies and mountain ranges seduce both narrator and reader. Richardson has created rich, memorable characters -- the liberated apostate, Ada, who sells alcohol to Gentiles; the exuberant young boy Tierre ("Pee-air! I ain't no Pee-air."); and a wounded Native American mother who offers Clair spiritual enlightenment.

Despite further betrayal and heartsick despair, Clair discovers that her own inner strength offers an option to a solitude tainted by bitterness. Buoyed by trust in other outsiders with a shared goal of simple survival, Clair finds her days joyfully marked by a self-created family and her beloved land.