Saturday, March 17, 2012

Book Review: The Lightning Tree by Sarah Dunster

Title: The Lightning Tree
Author: Sarah Dunster
Enjoyment Rating: 8/10
Referral: I read the first chapter of The Lightning Tree when we were judging Segullah's short story contest last year (it won!) and Dunster contacted me when the book was finished to see if I'd read it.
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 41

I'm writing this review as part of the blog tour kickoff for The Lightning Tree. Around this time last year, those of us at Segullah were deep in reading mode, working our way through entries for our short story contest. There were lots of interesting entries, but one story really stood out-- it was the story of a girl living in Provo in the mid-1800s whose only friend, a stepdaughter of Brigham Young, was suddenly leaving town. This girl, Maggie, wanted to say goodbye to her friend and didn't understand why she was leaving. The story put the reader very clearly into the world of the late 1850s and I finished the story wanting more. It was very clear that this author had serious writing chops, and equally clear that Maggie's story wasn't finished when we came to the end of what we'd been given. So I was delighted to learn that Sarah Dunster was working on a novel, and even happier when I found out that the book had been selected for publication.

The Lightning Tree tells the story of Magdalena, a convert from the mountains of Northern Italy whose parents died on the trail west. The Aldens, a family traveling west in the same wagon train, take in Maggie and her younger sister, and settle in Provo. Several years pass, and Maggie, a teenager, has a hard time remembering the journey to Provo and the details surrounding her parents' death. But as the tension in the city rises and people begin whispering about which men were involved in what happened down in Southern Utah (that "what" being the Mountain Meadows Massacre), Maggie begins to dream about and remember some of the parts of the past she has forgotten or suppressed.

Dunster's book is an interesting look into trauma, repression, fitting in, and what it means to belong to a family. While the book is set against the background of Mountain Meadows, and many of the issues Maggie is dealing with are echoed in the way our church has or hasn't acknowledged their role in Mountain Meadows, Dunster does a great job telling a story without editorializing. I felt that I was getting Maggie's story, not the story of how evil those Mormons were or how the poor Mormons were maligned and misunderstood. In fact, the only "message" that I get from the book as a whole is that everything, even our memories and the people who love us, are more complicated than we given them credit for, for good or for bad.

All in all, I think The Lightning Tree is a well-written, important, unsentimental work of historical fiction. Its Mormon setting is important, but I think that the book would have lots of crossover appeal to those interested in western history, and not just to a Mormon audience who wants a faith-affirming story.

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