Jane's Reviews > Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams
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Mar 09, 2012

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bookshelves: memoir, 50-states
Read in February, 2012

I finished Refuge at least two weeks ago and have spent a lot of time wondering why I didn't like it as much as I expected to. That's not to say there was nothing I liked about it. I learned more about the Great Salt Lake--its structure and the birds that make their home there--than I have in years living near by. I loved that and the way she made me think about these valleys and mountains as shared places: native species with an ever burgeoning population.

Maybe my familiarity with the area was the downfall of my enjoyment. It started with a small thing, okay, a really petty thing that nearly drove me crazy. Evidently the author and others who spend lots of time communing with the lake and its inhabitants don't use the article "the" when they refer to it. She'd say something like, "I drove to Great Salt Lake." Most locals would say, "I drove to the Great Salt Lake." It pulled me out of the flow of the reading every time. It seemed artificial and after a while even reverential. I swear I could hear James Earl Jones saying, "Great Salt Lake" every time I read a sentence like that. I started to feel like I needed to genuflect or light incense. There was a mystical, mythological sense she was bringing to her description of the lake that I just couldn't buy.

At the center of the book is the weaving of her mother's cancer and the floods in 1983. My family has been no stranger to cancer in the last few years, and I did connect more to that part of the story. I respected the author's willingness to talk about the profound experiences possible while dealing with the suffering that cancer can entail. Here the spiritual quality felt genuine and I could understand that she would carry that sense with her as she spent time with nature.

I must speak to one thing; a very different perception of the women in a shared religion and culture. She said of women who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), "In Mormon culture, authority is respected, obedience is revered, and independent thinking is not. I was taught as a young girl not to 'make waves' or 'rock the boat'." Like Williams, I come from a family of Mormon pioneers, and my perception of our women is one of profound wisdom and strength. I was raised by a mother who believed wholeheartedly in our beliefs which she passed on to me, and she never taught me I couldn't ask questions or rock the boat.
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