The book is about how the persecuted become the persecutors; how those who have suffered from bigotry and prejudice become bigoted and prejudiced. It is about “us” and “them”, about inclusion and exclusion, about the comforts and benefits of belonging – and the price of belonging. It is about the family or the group imposing its will on the individual. It is about the individual vs. the group, and the liberation, survival and freedom of each.
Reviewed by Rolf Gompertz
This is the Place is a magnificent book and Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a magnificent writer. Her book is a joy to read. It is a work of literary art. It is an important book. It is a book that touches the heart, mind, and soul.
This is the Place is about 19-year-old Skylar Harriet Eccles-Sky trying to figure out who she is, what she wants to be, and where she belongs. It is about marriage and domesticity, Mormon-style, and about young Archer Benson, who loves Sky and wants to marry her. It is about Utah, 1959, and the Salt Lake Valley, where Brigham Young declared, “This is the place”, and settled his persecuted flock some hundred years earlier. It is about three living generations of Sky’s family, whose men are Mormons, with one a direct descendant of The Church’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith. It is about Sky’s Protestant mother, who would not convert, and Sky’s grandmother and great grandmother, who did.
Sky puts it all in a nutshell when she asks, at one point, “So why can’t I just do what I want? Do I have to be so adaptable because every woman in my entire life is? Is that what’s required?”
Seeking to calm her down, her aunt Neesha, who is only a few years older, suggests, “If the great mystery of life is who we are, you and I are not going to find it today.” “Probably not”, Sky agrees, but wonders “what we would do with ourselves if we actually found out”.
The book opens with a story about a piano, which belongs to Sky’s grandmother, Harriet Skylar Eccles’ Gram Harry. The instrument symbolizes the promising musical career, and independence, she abandoned when she chose to marry and become a Mormon. Gram Harry tries to keep Sky in line when she sees her granddaughter going to work for the liberal Salt Lake City Tribune. “You have musical talent”, the grandmother tells Sky. “Music runs in your veins”. Resisting the pull of the lifestyle her grandmother had chosen, asserting herself, Sky replies: “Try to understand. Words are my music. You love the notes, I love the lyrics.”
Howard-Johnson’s words, indeed, are her music. She writes with journalistic clarity and poetic beauty and power. Her writing is especially rich in delightful, enlightening similes, which appear unexpectedly, like refreshing, hidden springs. Consider these: “Material verve followed her like the aura of expensive perfume.” (p. 33) “The night was heavy and the moon was gray, washed with clouds like mottled oatmeal.” (p. 162)
“Sky didn’t tell her (Stella) that (her eyes) were melancholy pools, like twin mountain lakes at dusk.” (p. 95)
“There was no difficulty for him in choosing her, dainty as a blossom of bleeding heart, skin as soft as butterfly wings.” (p. 133)
“Big raindrops started to clap, like scattered applause, across the driveway and sidewalk.” (p. 170)
Howard-Johnson knows the people and places intimately and captures the inner and outer worlds with subtle, startling and telling detail. The author has found a deceptively simple, intriguing way of telling her multi-generational story. Each chapter is devoted to one or two individuals, allowing the reader to get to know them and their relationship to Sky, moving the plot along in the process. We read about Sky Eccles, Harriet Skylar Eccles, Sky and Archer, Harriet and Brock, Sky and Stella, among others. We also read about places – Sky’s Place, Harriet’s Place, and The Place – The Salt Lake Valley and Salt Lake City.
The chapter subheadings suggest the point and plot direction: The Search, Soul Music, Identity, Intolerance, Discovery, Proposal, Love Story, Finding Yourself, Inclusion, Exclusion, Rejection, Healing, Self-Denial, Consolation, Destination, Sacrifice, Premonition, Perspective, Loss and The Lesson. The author cares about each of her characters and makes us care.
What makes this book important is that it is not just about particular individuals, and a particular place and time, but that it is about timeless and universal types and issues. Sky observes the many forms of prejudice and cruelty. After one family gathering, she confides in her aunt: “You know it isn’t just our family, Neesha. One side is as bad as the other. Neither side ever gets it. People who have suffered persecution can turn it on others with a terrible benevolence. It becomes a cycle that builds in intensity. It never wears itself out.” The book is about how the persecuted become the persecutors; how those who have suffered from bigotry and prejudice become bigoted and prejudiced. It is about “us” and “them”, about inclusion and exclusion, about the comforts and benefits of belonging – and the price of belonging. It is about the family or the group imposing its will on the individual. It is about the individual vs. the group, and the liberation, survival and freedom of each. If these themes resonate with you, any time, any place, then this is the time, the place and the book – for you.
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About the Reviewer: Rolf Gompertz is a UCLA professor, and President of Gompertz Public Relations. He is the author of Abraham, the Dreamer: An Erotic and Sacred Love Story. available at Amazon.com