Every life is a story some dramatic, some more mundane. But given enough distance and perspective and context, even the most ordinary life can take on an aura of significance, while the dramatic life can reveal striking insights. This is the stuff of history - the lives of the famous and the not-so-famous woven into a general tapestry. And sometimes it is as informative to look at the specific threads as to view the completed picture. Three recently released books offer a look at some of the threads.
JUANITA BROOKS: Mormon Woman Historian; By Levi S. Peterson; University of Utah Press; 505 pages; $19.95.If there is one telling description of Juanita Brooks, it is this: midwife to the past. Sometimes with pain, sometimes with tender nurturing, this remarkable woman assisted with the ushering in of a new way of looking at the past. Her passion was pioneer diaries; and through her work with the Works Progress Administration, the Huntington Library and on her own, she gathered, copied, preserved and absorbed the contents of the personal records left by settlers of her beloved southern Utah.
She did not set out to be a historian. It was partly a matter of being in the right time at the right place. But, notes Levi Peterson, "within this seemingly ordinary rural housewife dwelt a spirit remarkable for curiosity, integrity and tolerance and for the ability to reconcile faith and critical reason."
Brooks is best known for her work on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which though highly controversial at the time, has come to be regarded as a landmark study, a catharsis of sorts for Mormons in dealing with this part of their history.
"One is reminded," writes Peterson, "that penitence was prominent among Juanita's purposes in writing and speaking about the massacre. She had become the public voice . . . of confession and contrition. . . ."
Her voice was all the more poignant because she was - and remained - a staunch and loyal, albeit liberal, member of the LDS Church.
Using Brooks' autobiographical works, copies of her letters to fellow historians and others, diaries and other materials, Peterson traces her life from the tiny Mormon community of Bunkerville, Nev., where she was born, to the St. George nursing home where she is now.
Peterson, a professor of English at Weber State College, writes well. His style is lucid and straightforward. And there is much of interest here.
The main problem I had with the book was the same one Peterson found with Brooks' "History of the Jews in Utah and Idaho": "She relied excessively upon chronological arrangement, reporting events simply as they happened rather than clustering them according to category, trend or principle."
A biography will naturally be chronologically, but there is little attempt here to go beyond that - to set events into a broader context of the times. It is for the most part simply laid out as it happened. Events and issues are sometimes left hanging - awaiting the passage of time and chapters.
The account is very detailed, but often the details clutter rather than contribute. Do we really care that "on a Sunday in May, Mary Kay left a pot of soup boiling on the stove. When the others returned the house was full of acrid smoke"? Or, that "Susie came in and vacuumed and straightened her grandparents home for a couple of hours"?
Clutter aside, however, this is a story worth telling. In the end, we do have a better understanding of a woman "forever courageous, intelligent and kind." And overall, the book is a worthy recipient of the David W. and Beatrice C. Evans Annual Biographical Award, given by the Mountain West Center for Regional Studies at Utah State University.
THE HOGLES; By Gerald M. McDonough; McMurrin-Henriksen; 539 pages; $22.50.
If all you know about the Hogle family is that they have a zoo named after them, you may be interested to know that:
-The original family name was actually Gilmore, and though the reason for the change can't be satisfactorily explained, it occurred in the Montana gold fields.
-The family history is in many ways a fulfillment of the American dream - from the gold fields to the stock exchange, it is the story of men searching for, and generally finding, material success.
-The life of the Hogles was in many ways typical of the gentile miner/merchants who made a significant contribution to the history of Salt Lake City.
The book basically covers two generations - the story of James and his son, James A. (with a section on James A.'s wife, Mary). James was the one lured West by the promise of gold who eventually wound up as a saloon keeper and merchant in Salt Lake City. His son grew up in the city, attended a private school in Concord, N.H., before graduating as an engineer from Princeton and returning to Utah. His main interests were mining and finance.
The story is well researched and interestingly told. Author Gerald McDonough may be overly dramatic in places, and some episodes tend to drag on longer than perhaps necessary (Mary and her health notions comes to mind), but there is plenty of context, offering insight not only into a less familiar aspect of Utah history but into Western history as well. This is a look inside one of the state's prominent families.
A GOOD TIME COMING: Mormon Letters to Scotland; Edited by Frederick Stewart Buchanan; University of Utah Press; 319 pages; $24.95.
If the Hogle story is one of fulfillment of the American dream, "A Good Time Coming" provides a poignant look at the other side of the coin. For the MacNeil brothers, success seemed to be always just outside the grasp.
David and Ann MacNeil and family joined the LDS Church in Scotland. Heeding the call to gather to Zion, three of the sons came to America at various times. And, as shown by the letters they wrote, their experiences provide a microcosm of the whole emigration movement.
One, actually a stepson, John Thompson, remained in Illinois, where he served briefly in the Union Army during the Civil War, tried to scratch a living, and ended up affiliating with the Reorganized Church.
The other two MacNeils came to Utah. Mining was what they knew in Scotland, and mining was what they kept going back to here. But neither it nor the other occupations they tried offered much. They got by, but never got ahead. John turned away from the church; James remained a faithful Mormon to the end.
But for all three, the end was untimely. John Thompson and John MacNeil both died in mining accidents; James MacNeil was killed when his team and wagon were swept away as he was crossing a river.
Their letters are supplemented by letters from various other friends and acquaintances of Ann and David MacNeil.
The letters, says editor Frederick Buchanan, are "honest - sometimes painfully so - and give a balanced historical picture of the rhythms and routines which made up the lives not only of Scottish immigrants to Utah but also of the great mass of individuals who sought a better life in America."