This is part of the American Lives series, edited by Tobias Wolff. I’m not sure why I picked it up. Perhaps it’s because I once took a class called American Lives; perhaps it’s because I was intrigued by what the back cover promised – a memoir about a move west. In the end, it has given me much to consider, though that does not necessarily mean I recommend it.
Stephens and her husband move west. It is not until later in the book that we learn that they are just married or that, more importantly, she has moved west to do her thesis on the west. All the while, she struggles to call her new place in Utah “home,” with all of the connotations that that word has for her. She strives for authenticity but does not let on until late that she was always going to be a visitor, or even a cultural tourist.
She’s aware of her desire to remove the irony from her situation. She’s observing, but does not want to observe. She wants to be there. To that end, she throws herself into the small Mormon community and relishes the landscape, the animals, and their neighbors. At her farewell picnic, she notes, she has much more in common with the people there, who she’s certain will forget her, than she did when she first arrived. Is this a mark of success? Or just an expected outcome of a very serious ethnographic study? After all, Stephens has met one her standards for being grounded in the community; she has been very committed to her life there. She even gives birth while living there.
What, then, is this book? A memoir? A research project? Voyeurism? Evidence of privilege?
Like I said, much to chew on.