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Utah Lit: Water war a backdrop for complex family drama

(Keith Johnson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jana Richman at the Tribune studio, January 17, 2014. Richman is the author of "The Ordinary Truth," the inaugural selection for Utah Lit, The Salt Lake Tribune) 's online book club.

By Lisa Carricaburu

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jan 25 2014 06:40PM
Updated Jan 27, 2014 11:06AM

Readers of Jana Richman’s "The Ordinary Truth" may assume the impetus for the 2012 novel was the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s controversial plan to pipe water from rural Spring Valley to the sprawling metropolis of Las Vegas.

They’d be wrong.

The novel The Salt Lake Tribune selected for its inaugural Utah Lit online book club discussion on Friday, Jan. 31, actually began with Richman hearing the voice of Cassie, the youngest of three generations of women in a Nevada ranching family around whose lives "The Ordinary Truth" is told.

Richman, a native of Utah’s Rush Valley who now lives in Escalante, said she begins each new work by writing detailed sketches of her characters. She then squirrels those sketches away and rarely consults them again so her characters can evolve as they begin talking and acting in her stories.

"I don’t outline books and I don’t know where [characters] are going," she said in an interview.

Richman wasn’t quite sure where to place Cassie and other women in the family she conceived when she read a newspaper article about the Spring Valley proposal.

That’s how Cassie, mother Kate and grandmother Nell ended up in fictional Omer Springs, Nev., a ranching family torn apart by the omnipresent war over water.

As a writer, Richman said she looks "for places where values are colliding, where the New West and the Old West are colliding."

Water issues in the arid states of Nevada and Utah certainly meet that criterion, and the pipeline project provided a worthy background for Richman to explore complex family dynamics involving Cassie, an earnest but somewhat lost college student who ends up spending her summer at a brothel; the tightly wound Kate, a pipeline decision maker Richman acknowledges takes on some of the characteristics of Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager Pat Mulroy; and Nell, the family’s hard-boiled matriarch who clearly resents that role.

In the women’s relationships, readers find themselves exploring the seldom-talked-about reality that some women are thrust into motherhood against their will and contrary to their nature, to the detriment of mother and child alike.

Richman also explores the jealousy of a mother reluctant to share her husband’s affections with a child, an emotion that bears out as a decades-old family secret is revealed.

"I didn’t really know that’s where it would go," Richman said of the novel’s plot. "[The secret] revealed itself as the characters discovered themselves."

While readers learn one truth in the novel, they shouldn’t expect undisputable truth about the water conundrum "The Ordinary Truth" explores.

The novel gives a face to ranchers whose way of life is threatened no less than the urbanites on the opposite side of the debate.

Just as the desert, with its demand for restraint, is no place for agriculture, it’s also no place for a sprawling city.

Both are there and have been for generations, however, and good people populate both sides of the debate over water scarcity, Richman said.

The harsh reality, Richman said, is that "there might not be an answer. Humans hate that idea. But we may be at the point where we’ve pushed it too far."

Twitter: @lcarricaburu

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