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Book review: 'Wrecks of Human Ambition' is a comprehensive history of Utah's canyon country

By Alison Snyder

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Aug. 16 2014 1:00 p.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, Aug. 18 2014 9:54 a.m. MDT

WRECKS OF HUMAN AMBITION: A History of Utah’s Canyon Country to 1936,” by Paul T. Nelson, University of Utah Press, $19.95, 312 pages (nf)

“Wrecks of Human Ambition: A History of Utah’s Canyon Country to 1936” is a fascinating read and a comprehensive take on European and American efforts to explore, settle and cultivate the canyon country of southeastern Utah. It’s written more like a textbook than an informative nonfiction account driven by its narratives, but that’s to be expected considering the book is author Paul T. Nelson’s doctoral dissertation put into novel form.

After an almost exhausting exploration and definition of his concept of “good lands” and “bad lands,” Nelson delves into an examination of historical attitudes regarding canyon country, beginning with Spanish exploration of the area. The study makes its way through centuries of history, discussing map-making, geography, explorations, politics and settlements. It evaluates different religious and cultural groups’ judgments and attitudes about the region, from explorers, surveyors, miners and Mormon settlers to the first adventure-type tourists in the 1930s.

The book gets sidetracked in haphazardly summarizing random doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in an attempt to educate readers about the cultural and religious narratives that led Mormon settlers to establish towns such as Escalante, Torrey, Moab and Bluff along the periphery of canyon country. However, it includes a valuable comprehensive perspective on events in the settlement of this region of Utah that is often lost in solely focusing on the personal narratives and accounts written by settlers and surveyors.

More than anything, this book illustrates how canyon country — one of the most scarcely populated areas in the contiguous United States — has always been a misunderstood region. Throughout the centuries, people’s attempts to mold canyon country to their own ideas have often failed as its “crooked landscape” refuses to conform to society’s linear expectations.

In the coda, Nelson, a native Utahn, touches on how that misunderstanding has continued to this day with self-proclaimed environmentalists, tourist promoters and water developers continuing to impose unrealistic expectations on canyon country’s land and resources, unwilling to “accept it on its own complex terms.” With more than five centuries of "wrecked ambitions" to prove it, this history is an interesting examination of man and nature in the hot, arid maze of canyons in southeastern Utah.

The book contains no swearing or other offensive language or sexual content. All of the violence mentioned, including numerous murders of settlers and explorers by Native American tribes, is limited to brief descriptions and discussion and doesn't include any graphic details.

If you go ...

What: Paul T. Nelson book signing

When: Tuesday, Aug. 19, 7 p.m.

Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City

Web: kingsenglish.com

Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of the featured book from The King's English.

Alison Snyder has a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Brigham Young University. She lives in St. George, Utah.

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