Set mainly in Salt Lake City and other parts of Utah, Variation West covers more than a century of western life and history. But Ardyth Kennelly's sweeping final novel also covers the wider territory of the human heart: how it motivates people to love, to work, to survive - and to do violence to themselves or others.
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 humorous, 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.
That past, made mythic through the mind of a little Australian girl, are handed down to Hindle's granddaughter Rosetta. With a spirit hungry to know the world, Rosetta feels keenly the strangeness of time, the presence of the past in the here and now. She and her cousin Lavonne, working as beauty operators and never separated for longs, 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.