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Books: Bigamy as allegory

Published July 23, 2012 2:04 pm

Utah native's novel explores middle ground in nation of extremes, as her characters defy marital, cultural stereotypes.
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Miah Arnold spent her early years in a house attached to the Three Legged Dog Saloon in Myton, a town of just more than 500 southwest of Roosevelt.

Now a Houston resident, she says rural eastern Utah remains at the core of who she is, this land of Mormons, certainly, but also of roughnecks, Ute Indians, and aging hippies drawn to the Uinta Basin by its crisp air and the grandeur of its mountains.

A cast of characters who bust Utah stereotypes come together in Sweet Land of Bigamy, Arnold's first novel, which she will read from on Friday at 7 p.m. at The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City. They are the people from whom protagonist Helen Motes draws friendship and hope as she builds a fragile life after a rough start as the fatherless child of an alcoholic mother.

The novel begins with Helen's wedding atop a cliff at Nuchu's Landing to Chakor Desai, an Indian poet with whom she becomes besotted after returning temporarily to tiny Smoot's Pass from her home in Houston to help open an arts center.

Never mind that Helen is already married to a much older Mormon who sees himself as having rescued her — and she him — after they encounter one another at a Salt Lake City MacFrugal's store where Helen worked as a teenage runaway.

Helen mostly conceals her bigamy from those around her, but knows she eventually must decide between her two husbands, each of whom has attributes she needs and wants. She's neither devious nor particularly deceitful but rather confused, and unsure why she has to choose.

Helen's state is one in which many people find themselves in today's world, according to Arnold, who essentially sees Chakor and Larry Janx — Helen's first husband — as allegories.

They are Helen's blue- and red-state mates. "Our nation so often is portrayed as a place of extremes, but it's much more complicated than that," Arnold says. "It's possible to love what's traditional in the liberal character and to love what's open-minded in the conservative character."

Through the course of the book, Helen also discovers what she needs and wants for her life in a progression of characters who make fleeting but meaningful appearances in Sweet Land of Bigamy.

Kathleen Talbot, for example, appears just once in the novel, in a beauty shop conversation about life choices. A high school history teacher, Talbot offers insight about the Robert Frost poem "The Road Less Traveled" to Helen and the shop's young proprietor.

The poem is wrong, Kathleen tells the two women. "What you want to do whenever you see two roads before you is take off down through the brush between them. Because God knows it's miserable being defined by a road, no matter how little travelled it is."

That, in essence, is the message of Arnold's book: Find the middle ground. It offers the most promise — the most hope.

lisac@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lcarricaburu —

Miah Arnold: 'Sweet Land of Bigamy'

When • Friday, July 27 at 7 p.m.

Where • The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City