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Book review: 'A Zion Canyon Reader' shares essays about southern Utah features, peoples

By Emily Mabey Swensen

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, July 26 2014 4:30 p.m. MDT

"A ZION CANYON READER," edited by Nathan N. Waite and Reid L. Neilson, University of Utah Press, $14.95, 248 pages (nf)

The southern Utah area that is now Zion National Park and the surrounding area struck early tourists with a force. As editor Nathan N. Waite notes in the introduction to "A Zion Canyon Reader," one New York Times correspondent described Zion Canyon this way, “In beauty of forms, in color, in variety, in everything but size, (it) vastly excels the famous Yosemite.”

"A Zion Canyon Reader" is a compilation of 150 years of writings about Zion Nation Park, including Zion Canyon, and the surrounding region and covers everything from the geological development and early native peoples to the modern questions of conservation versus economic growth. The collection is made approachable through the inclusion of relatively short essays and a clear description of their purpose and flow in the introduction.

The anthology is divided into five sections that meander through Zion’s history. From native inhabitants to settlers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to modern tourism, the collection includes the works of recognizable names of Western literature, such as Wallace Stegner and Juanita Brooks, as well as lesser-known writers.

After covering the geological development and early native peoples of southern Utah, the anthology moves on to the impressions, both scholarly and personal, of the visitors. These 29 essays range from the careful documentation of John Wesley Powell to the anecdotal thoughts of George Fraser, an early tourist who noted of a Cedar City stop on his way to Zion in 1914, “Hot, filthy dirty and lunch vile. Had to work hard not to eat flies.”

The final sections address the sense of place visitors feel in Zion National Park, as well as conservation and economic pressures. An article about the movie theater that opened in Springdale in 1994 is an excellent example of the tension between conservation and economics that perpetually faces the canyon and its surrounding inhabitants.

What may be most valuable is its ability to give a history of Zion Canyon and place it in modern-day issues without revealing a hidden agenda. Many anthologies about the precious lands of the American west today struggle to avoid a bias that alienates some readers. While Zion Canyon is a specific area within the park, the essays are about the entire area and it's not always clear if some of the references to Zion Canyon for the Zion National Park.

The editors both live and work in Utah. Lyman Hafen, executive director of the Zion Natural History Association, lends a Zion pedigree to the book with his foreword. This anthology has clean language and no sexual references or violence.

Emily Mabey Swensen has been a freelance writer and developmental editor for the past 14 years. She has a master's degree in writing and publishing from Emerson College in Boston. Email: emilymabeyswensen@me.com

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