Utah writers consider life springing from shadows of dead relatives

First Published      Last Updated Jun 03 2017 09:34 pm

Books » Two Utah writers take stock of the echoes left by the dead — one exploring an ancestor’s “inner wilderness,” one meditating on fraternal ties.

Maybe it's part of the work of a writer to dance with those who have passed on.

If you turn over the dirt at a place where something has happened, you're stirring up history, as the poet Joy Harjo wrote.

Or maybe literary inspiration can be captured by that famously quoted idea of writer William Faulkner, about how history isn't really dead, or even really past.

That's the metaphorical link between two recent memoirs by Utah writers Brooke Williams and Scott Abbott, whose lives are shadowed by dead relatives.

Williams' ghost is his great-great-grandfather William Williams, who died in Wyoming along the Mormon Trail. In contrast, Abbott is haunted by someone he once knew well, his younger brother, John, who died at 40 in 1991 of complications from AIDS.

Williams, in his new memoir, "Open Midnight: Where Ancestors and Wilderness Meet," imagines a story from the barest outlines of his great-great-grandfather's life. In the decade or so since Williams "met" his ancestor, the writer came to believe he has been guided to discover what might be called an inner wilderness.

His editor, Barbara Ras, calls the book "completely original," praising the writer's voice as "completely evolved." "In a totally sophisticated and personal voice, he speaks so directly to the reader without any hesitation," says Ras, a poet who recently retired from the environmentally focused Trinity University Press, which she founded. "He found the courage to bring together unlikely combinations."

In Abbott's book, "Immortal for Quite Some Time," the Utah Valley University philosophy professor crafts what he calls "a fraternal meditation." In a fragmented, intellectual style, he includes challenges from an unnamed female voice and questions from his dead brother.

Abbott's editor, John Alley, at the University of Utah Press, calls the book "an exciting, entertaining read" because of its fragmentary style, praising the writer's bravery as he left his job at Brigham Young University and membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Considered together, these two books offer fascinating cultural reconsiderations of Mormon beliefs about communication between the living and the dead.

For Williams, the dead are all around us, serving as something like spiritual guides, or reminders of what Carl Jung termed the "collective unconscious."

Abbott says he thinks the dead are dead. And yet: He wrote a book to hold onto his brother's memory, even inventing fragments of conversations he wished he could have with him. "Keeping it in fragments at least keeps the sense that this story is not finished," he says.

Uprooted • When Williams moved with his wife, writer Terry Tempest Williams, to Castle Valley in 1999, he was the first member of his immediate family to choose to settle more than 50 miles away from Salt Lake City. "But then I'd always been the difficult one," he writes.

The Williamses' environmental activism earned national headlines last February after they bid on Bureau of Land Management oil and gas leases north of Arches National Park, as part of a climate change protest. Their winning bids on 1,120 acres prompted them to incorporate an energy company, Tempest Explorations LLC. "You cannot define our definition of energy," Tempest Williams said at the time.

In October, the Interior Department refunded their money and withdrew the leases because they weren't planning to develop the land. Williams says they have filed an appeal for what they argue is "special treatment."

That's one of the untold backstories that anchor his book. During the time he was writing "Open Midnight," Williams was employed by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance to "ground-truth" — that is, to make sense of maps created by aerial photographs. He spent long days alone in remote places, accompanied by his dog, Rio, and his truck, which he refers to as Ford.

After moving to southern Utah, Williams says he felt like a newcomer — nonnative, that is — as he was falling in love with the landscape. He began to consider what it means to be native, and then he began to wonder about his ancestral roots in England.

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Brooke Williams reads from ‘Open Midnight’

When » Thursday, March 2, 7 p.m.

Where » The King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City

Tickets » Free

‘Open Midnight: Where Ancestors & Wilderness Meet’

By » Brooke Williams

Publisher » Trinity University Press

Pages » 214

Price » $16.95

More » Williams’ most recent book, edited with his wife, writer Terry Tempest Williams, was a Torrey House press reissue and response to British writer Richard Jeffries’ 1883 autobiography, “The Story of My Heart.”

‘Immortal for Quite Some Time’

By » Scott Abbott

Publisher » University of Utah Press

Pages » 256

Price » $24.95

More » Abbotts’ most recent book, written with UVU colleague Sam Rushforth, is “Wild Rides & Wildflowers: Philosophy and Botany with Bikes,” based on their mountain-bike adventures on Utah County’s Great Western Trail. The book grew out of the pair’s columns originally published in Catalyst magazine.

Also » His next book, “Intimate Fences: Constructing the Meaning of Barbed Wire,” written with Lyn Ellen Bennett, will be published in October by Texas A&M University Press.