Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Tributary by Barbara K. Richardson

In Tributary, Barbara Richardson examines Mormon culture in the 1860’s.  The inhabitants of Brigham City, Utah don’t see Clair Martin’s facial birthmark as a genetic abnormality.  They see it as the mark of sin.  In Mormon Utah, Clair is seen as cursed and like the other Mormon women in the community; she is good mostly for work until she becomes of marrying age.  Since her parents are dead, Clair is farmed out to local widows and widowers for help on their land.    She is not valued for her mind, her thoughts, or her abilities, until she meets the local apostate, Ada Nuttall. 
Ada is one of Brigham City’s first settlers.  She is strong willed and living on her own terms.  She is the wife of the first Bishop and is given a wide berth when it comes to her own business affairs and financial independence.  Clair, following the death of her latest caretaker, seeks to avoid marriage, motherhood, and drudgery.  Ada agrees to give her use of the cabin and a friendship is born.
Ada is a memorable character.  While she enjoys her Mormon townsfolk for their peace-loving ways, she does not enjoy their religion tainting every aspect of life.  Ada is too strong willed to be told what to do, and Clair finds a sort of maternal figure in Ada.  She also finds a potential love interest in Ada’s son, Stephen, who she admires more from his mother’s stories than actual knowledge of him.
Clair is reluctant to marry and sees marriage in a negative light, so when the men come sniffing after her, she decides to move to New Orleans to find out about her parents heritage.  While working in a hospital looking after African American patients, she meets a little boy named Tierre.  He becomes the true love of her life.  Clair and Tierre eventually move to work with Stephen, who has purchased a sheep ranch in southern Idaho.  The rest of the novel details her relationship with Stephen, her work to keep the sheep farm afloat, and her motherly relationship with Tierre.
The writing in this novel is beautiful. I found myself taken with many a turn of phrase and the description of the beauty of the land.  Since the novel is divided into three parts, each focusing on a region that is geographically distinct, I enjoyed the details of the unique features of each place.  In addition, the internal dialogue and thoughts of Clair are quite introspective and clear.  We learn a great deal about how she feels marginalized by Mormon society, how she desires to be free from any yoke of bondage, and how much she wants to give and receive love.
The agricultural and ranching detail clearly shows that Richardson has done her homework.  The portrayal of the difficulties of ranch life (in particular sheep ranching) convinced me more than ever that I am blessed to be a woman in 2012 instead of 1861.  The harshness and unpredictability of life is especially richly drawn.
I also enjoyed the relationship that Clair had with Tierre, who Clair takes to live with her on the ranch. I did find the relationship a bit anachronistic.  Would a Mormon woman, even one who is breaking free from the constraints of strict Mormon society, be willing to take the risk of practically becoming the mother of an African American boy?  I was not convinced.  When the two of them meet at the hospital, I did not find anything in Tierre’s character that explained why Clair was so drawn to him.  While Tierre is well-written character and I enjoyed reading about his growth and development, I never really understood the underpinnings of the relationship he has with Clair and why she would take the risks she did for him.
I also found some of Clair’s internal dialogue, particularly her insights about the Mormon religion and it’s unfairness to women, a bit advanced for the time period.  I can see Clair wanting to break free from rigid society, but at times, it felt as though she had a modern sensibility about her religion rather than the mindset that she probably would have had growing up in Mormon society.
All in all, Tributary was a moving read of a woman trying to find her place in the world, while also trying to reconcile her relationship (or lack thereof) with God.  The period details were well done, and the novel works as a study of history, agriculture, and the place of religion in the fulfillment of women.

*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.   Regina

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