The Wine-dark Sea of Grass
Terry L Jeffress
Salt Press (Springville, Utah), 2001. Hardcover:
Suggested retail price: $24.95 (US)
In The Wine-dark Sea of Grass, Marilyn Brown examines how theMountain Meadows Massacre affected the lives of the Mormon settlers inrural southern Utah. The novel starts several months before themassacre and builds up tension well to demonstrate how the Mormonsettlers worked themselves into a state where they could justifykilling an entire party of pioneers traveling through Utah toCalifornia. We see the massacre and its aftermath through the eyes ofthe fictional Lorry family. Elizabeth, a foster daughter to the Lorryfamily, longs to marry John D. Lee and to join his already largepolygamous family. Instead, her foster father, J.B., gets permissionfrom the local church authorities to marry her. Elizabeth's longingfor one thing but having to settle for another sets up a recurringmotif.
Since Elizabeth could not have witnessed much of the foundationalevents that preceded the massacre, Brown needed an additionalviewpoint character. Through Jacob Lorry, J.B.'s teenage son, we seethe massacre itself. In spite of the amount of time we spend watchingthrough Jacob's eyes, he never develops into a well rounded character.For example, Brown gives Jacob two characteristic responses to hiscircumstances: inaction and insomnia. Whenever faced with a criticalsituation, Jacob cannot speak. He loses his ability to speak so much,that I began to wonder if he suffered from a biblical curse ofdumbness. Following such critical events, Jacob cannot sleep. Idon't think Jacob got any sleep during the first third of thenarrative. At first Jacob imagines himself marrying Elizabeth, butJacob (only fifteen) sits silently by while his father marriesElizabeth. Jacob then has romantic intentions toward Lee's daughterAnna Jane, but J.B. announces his intention to marry Anna Jane.Again, Jacob becomes speechless and cannot confront his father aboutthe issue. (Jacob does get to marry Anna Jane when his father decidesthat he wants nothing to do with Lee or his family.)
Although the chronology takes Elizabeth and Jacob from teenagers tomiddle-aged adults, the narrative never really develops theircharacters into plausible adults. Elizabeth continues to pine forLee. Jacob becomes a mere camera through which we see events whichElizabeth would not have witnessed. In fact, several chapters thatstart from Jacob's point of view (which Brown carefully labeled forour benefit) shift unannounced into Elizabeth's point of view. Thesecharacters meander through their lives without any real direction orgoals. We get an interesting glimpse at early southern Utah life, butnothing drives these characters. Jacob and Elizabeth follow Lee likelost puppies with no personal motivation. Eventually, the book windsup with the trial and execution of Lee. The trial takes placeentirely off stage. Jacob and Elizabeth make the journey and witnessthe execution, which provides an unsatisfactory denouement that palesin comparison to the emotions and tension in the massacre scene 300pages earlier.
Brown does several things very well. Before the massacre, she builttension well and developed a situation that would explain how a groupof religious settlers could bring themselves to justify murdering anentire wagon train. Brown also gives us an interesting view ofpolygamy. Through Elizabeth, we see how a woman might want to join analready large polygamous family. See sees Lee's wives and childrendoting on him, and she imagines that she would rather haveone-eighteenth of a happy marriage than her bad marriage to J.B.Brown shows that like regular marriages, some polygamous families workand others don't -- not because of the institution itself, but becauseof the personalities of those involved in the marriage.
With all the discussion of polygamy, I wondered why these charactersseemed to never discuss spirituality. For a deeply religious people,Brown's characters never seemed inclined to pray or look to the spiritfor guidance or comfort. On occasion, sick people get priesthoodblessings, but the characters seem to rely upon the arm of flesh.Perhaps Brown wanted to show that those involved with the massacrelost their link to spirituality, but she never contrasted these peopleagainst those who do have a deep spirituality.
Brown's choice to use entirely fictional characters limits the amountof interest we can have in the events surrounding their lives. Weknow that much more important events and people exist just on theperiphery of Elizabeth and Jacob, but we only get faint glimpses ofthose characters and events. Instead of following the stories thatseem to me interesting or historical, we have to follow the romanticand hormonal indecision of a couple of teenagers who seemdevelopmentally stuck even as they move into middle age. TheWine-dark Sea of Grass draws an interesting picture with someinteresting foreground details, but it seems that those details floatin front of an unfinished landscape that hints at even greaterunrealized whole.
-- Terry L Jeffress South Jordan, UT
© 2001 Terry L Jeffress < firstname.lastname@example.org >