UtahLit: Bookclub will focus on rich Utah history in ‘Tributary’

First Published      Last Updated Apr 20 2015 02:29 pm

Utah lit » Barbara K. Richardson unfurls a multilayered, textured historical tale in “Tributary.”

For Barbara K. Richardson, earning her graduate degree in creative writing seemingly dried up her desire to write poetry. After complaining about that muddle to a friend, she experienced a dramatic creative breakthrough later that week.

In the middle of the night, Richardson found herself taking notes for a novel. In fact, she was awoken from her sleep hearing the voices of two strong female characters, a woman named Clair and her older friend and mentor, Ada, fictional characters inspired by the stories of her Mormon pioneer ancestors. For six weeks, the writer continued to take notes by flashlight for what she considered "The Ballad of Clair and Ada."

Now, Richardson, 59, considers that time of receiving "ecstatic conversation from The Void" as one of her life's most beautiful experiences. It offered her a way to understand the experience of what Mormons and other Christians consider the process of divine revelation. "Those moments of truth where something comes from nothing are very beautiful," she says.

It turned out that forgoing sleep to listen and take notes from her characters was the easy part. It took two decades of research and writing and rewriting and overcoming rejections to weave together the story of Clair Martin.

The character is the anchor of her novel, "Tributary," which Richardson considers "a prickly book" that's also a heartfelt "love letter to Utah." "When I started out, I didn't know I was a novelist," says the writer, who now lives in Kamas.

"Tributary" is the story of Clair, a young orphan girl marked by a purple birthmark on her face, who is raised by kindly Mormons in Brigham City. As she becomes a young woman, her mentor Ada Nutall helps her learn how to earn her independence. When Clair is asked to become a polygamous wife, she flees the only community she had ever known in a quest to learn more about her dead mother. Later, she allows love and optimism to draw her back to the desert that shaped her.

For Clair, being abandoned as a child shadowed her life. "For her, conforming isn't really the key to unlocking what she needs to unlock," Richardson says. "She's seeking a deep and profound love connection, which is very hard to find when you're an outsider."

"Tributary," published by Torrey House Press, won the Utah Book Award for fiction in 2014. The historical novel is the focus of this month's UtahLit book club discussion, which will take place at 12:15 p.m. Friday at sltrib.com. (Join the conversation by text or tweet or email; check the box for details.)

'Magical homeland' • Richardson was always anchored by her Mormon roots, but her parents fell away from church worship during their years traveling with the Air Force. As a girl, she considered her grandparents' home and the landscape around Brigham City a "magical homeland."

The family settled in Bountiful after her father retired, and she went on to earn an English degree from the University of Utah in 1978, where she managed the Waking Owl Book Company and fell in with the Buddhists who meditated there.

For a time she lived in San Francisco, where she worked refinishing sailboats, and then taught at schools in California and Washington. She earned an MFA in creative writing at Eastern Washington University in 1992 and went onto work as a landscape designer to support her writing.

After living in Colorado, she returned to Utah, drawn to Kamas by her memories of summer vacations at fishing cabins there.

She was inspired by the stories of settlers, including her ancestors, who landed in the desert with so little to sustain them. She was also drawn to more deeply rooted stories about American Indians and the clash of cultures and perspectives that occurred as they all struggled to survive. She wondered about the people who didn't quite fit into Mormon communities, those who chose to leave and make their own way.

The character of an old sheepherder in "Tributary" was inspired by her great-great-granduncle John E. Forsgren, who served as an LDS mission president in Scandinavia, where he converted his brother and sister. The Forsgrens and more than 200 converts left Copenhagen in 1852, arrived in Utah in 1853 and then were sent north to settle Brigham City. Two decades later, John Forsgren left the Mormon church and formed his own religion.

Another character, Tierre, is a young black boy whom Clair adopts. Richardson was inspired by the historical story of a South African boy who was smuggled by a Mormon convert on a train, then dressed in girl's clothing and a bonnet to safely make passage to Utah. Other influences included a young boy Richardson knew when she taught first grade and a boy with a broken leg in a hospital where she was a volunteer. In the book, Tierre grows up under Clair's care and then falls in love with a Shoshone woman, Kashess.

When she was young, Richardson says, it was frightening when people left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Outcasts seemed to fall off the face of the Earth.

She considers "Tributary" the exploration of the outcast stories, and the many, many ways you can be a Utahn.

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UtahLit for April

Join us in talking about “Tributary” by sending comments to ellenf@sltrib.com or jnpearce@http://sltrib.com Or join the live book club conversation on Friday, April 24, at 12:15 p.m. at http://sltrib.com You can text 801-609-8059 or use the Twitter hashtags #TribTalk and #UtahLit.


Barbara K. Richardson will read from her work at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 21, at Samak Smokehouse, 1937 Mirror Lake Road, Kamas. For information, visit samaksmokehouse.com or call 435-783-4880 and ask for Jen.

To find out more about Richardson’s anthologies, “I Am With You: Love Letters to Cancer Patients” or the forthcoming “Dirt,” visit barbarakrichardson.com.

About the cover photo

Photographer David Sidwell made this image at the end of the marshes of the Little Bear River where the water flows toward Bear River in western Cache Valley near Petersboro and Beaver Dam. This landscape inspired Richardson’s Utah Book Award-winning novel, “Tributary.