Parched lives in a parched land: A review of the Ordinary Truth

by Michael Engelhard

The Ordinary Truth
Jana Richman
375 pages, softcover: $16.95.
Torrey House Press, 2012.

Traditionally, springs and wells are centers of life around which people gather and sometimes form communities. In Utah author Jana Richman's second novel, The Ordinary Truth, metropolitan claims to desert waters unsettle a small town and pit one family's members against each other. Shifting between the perspectives of several Nevada women, Richman unravels secrets and half-truths -- a multigenerational quilt of residents near life's "sad, hard edges."

The youngest protagonist, Cassie, a webmaster and "reassuring decoy" for shy customers at a Carson City whorehouse, was raised by her ranching grandmother, Nell, who's been tasked with taming Cassie's feral nature. But the two women grew close, bonded by their strained relationship with Kate, Cassie's mother and Nell's daughter. Kate, emotionally crippled by the childhood loss of her beloved father in a hunting accident, now works for the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas. Her uneasy coexistence with her mother -- like two strangers "living in a perpetual elevator" -- sours when Kate announces her agency's plans for a pipeline that will drain Great Basin valleys, depleting the aquifer that waters the family spread ruled by the septuagenarian, no-nonsense Nell.

Grandmother and granddaughter form an unlikely yet true-to-life alliance: that of rancher and budding environmentalist. Besides Cassie's summer job at the brothel -- a half-baked ploy to unite the family in an intervention on her behalf -- she attends the program of environmental studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a field suggested by her grandma. "I don't know what happens when three stubborn women each take up ground waiting for the others to move," Cassie admits, "but I aim to find out."

Without taking sides, Richman -- a sixth-generation Utahn from the west desert -- paints a canvas of long-pending and much-dreaded water wars. Laced with cowboy humor and the cadences of rural speech but also referencing big-city skyscrapers, therapy sessions, and The White Stripes, this tale of estrangement encapsulates the discordant New West. The writing, refreshingly, subverts some clich├ęs; Kate scoffs at herself for envisioning her late father as a weathered cowboy riding off into the sunset. Though the setting is modern, the subject is timeless: loyalty to family and to the land -- according to Nell, the only two things that really matter in the world. And in Nell's assessment of this ordinary truth: "A person ought never to have to choose between those two things."

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