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Is The Place
by: David Leonhardt a.k.a. The Happy Guy
Reviewed by David Leonhardt, a.k.a. The Happy Guy
Believe it or not, it was the title that drew me to This Is The Place. From a savvy marketer like author Carolyn Howard-Johnson, I would have expected a title with a real splashy hook. From someone as enthusiastic as she, I would have expected a title with some oomph! This title seemed so … so … so out of character.
But that's because I knew nothing of Mormon history. Now I do. And so does anyone else who reads This Is The Place - a tale tossing on the stormy seas of a society divided by religion. "This is the Place" is what Brigham Young had said when he first led his Mormon flock into the Salt Lake Valley, where they would be free from the persecution they felt in the East. Howard-Johnson writes: "They were bringing with them a determination that would be tapped to deal with the harshness of this land that both defied life and nourished it with spiritual intensity. He had said, 'This is the place.' And it was."
Howard-Johnson warned me that her novel is "literary" and might not appeal to men. If literary means there is a lot of angst and torment and gnashing of teeth, or at least a valley full of soul-searching, then it is literary indeed. Howard-Johnson crafts very realistic characters struggling with prejudices, family pressure and their own internal contradictions.
Set in 1959, This Is The Place is built of one intriguing layer upon the next. Each generation of the Eccles family replays the same challenges, the same choices and the same griefs of the previous one. Early in the book, I lost track of how many generations carry the same burdens. Half the fun is in trying to keep track of who is who.
Howard-Johnson calls her novel "historical fiction", but when I asked her, she said it is also "a cross between memoir and novel." Much about Skylar Eccles, the heroine of the story, is autobiographical. Like her Mormon father and "gentile" mother. Like being the youngest reporter ever hired by the Salt Lake Tribune at that time. Like the piano dragged across the plains.
So Howard-Johnson writes about Skylar Eccles, who writes about various family members who tell her about her ancestors. Trying to follow the layers in This Is The Place is a bit like trying to keep track of the men playing female characters disguised as men playing roles as women in Shakespeare's As You Like It.
To say that This Is The Place is controversial is an understatement. Howard-Johnson paints a vivid portrait of a society torn by prejudice, not on the surface, but in undercurrents just below - the secret everybody shares.
About her book signings, she says, "Unfortunately, I can't determine how to keep away the religious right who want to convert me away from Mormonism, which is kind of hard to do because I'm not one!" In hindsight, Howard-Johnson seems to have written such protests right into her novel: "Sky had the anonymity of a Mormon name bestowed upon her by her father. Sky had the coloring carried through the same seminal link. She was rarely asked if she was Mormon; people just assumed."
Maybe the protesters should read the book and find out about Howard-Johnson … er … I mean Skylar, for themselves. And maybe you should read This Is The Place, too. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The reviewer is David Leonhardt, author of Climb your Stairway to Heaven: the 9 habits of maximum happiness. http://www.TheHappyGuy.com