Home Is Where Your Words Take You—and Keep Taking You
With her own twist, Liz Stephens joins fellow writers Terry Tempest Williams and Cheryl Strayed on the trail of women writing the American West. In this fine debut memoir—wrought in language that is witty, melodic, and wise—Stephens insinuates herself among the landscape in such a way that the reader may gather pieces of more than one puzzle. We want those pieces, drawn in early on by the authority of this strong voice that says: “Humans die. We only have so much time.” A time comes when a woman must stop the world and follow her dream. Liz Stephens uses her acceptance into a graduate program in northern Utah as a springboard to leave LA and a job making Taco Bell commercials. Her choice to settle and take part in a small Mormon community in the Cache Valley, rather than live among her academic counterparts, helps to situate this memoir as a quest to find authenticity in place.
Cast in a language that never fails to hold us in its spell, The Days Are Gods asks us to think big, to think lofty. And yet, Stephens offers the nuts and bolts of her journey, almost making it read like a how-to. This is a good thing, because sooner or later, it will hit you that you want to follow, you want to go there. It’s true that you will find some fascination in her unpacking of the never mundane eccentricities of LA, the land of make-believe, the how-to of catwalks and cloud dust. But the writing quickly moves into a highly detailed narrative of the intended and then actualized exodus from LA to the land of milk and honey. Stephens finds, then offers us, a Utah that is magnetizing, unforgiving, and teeming with people who want to help. This is a story about leaving a mythical West to encounter the real West, and it’s the story of dreams, of seeking, of articulating a journey, of excavating and refining both the dreams and their expression.
It’s Mormon country, and there’s plenty here to speak well of those who take this couple of outsiders—Stephens and her husband Christopher—into their midst, who protect them, feed them, provide them with horses and more.
The double duty of her prose is illustrated in the way Stephens introduces herself and her husband to her new neighbors: “Here’s me,” she writes. And in parenthesis: “(Stuff they can’t see: tattoos, a constant battle against hermeticism that borders on misanthropic, a mean interrupting streak.)” This book is as much about the teller as it is about the land; it’s about the impact of the journey upon Stephens and her husband, but the thirst for land, for an experience of this land with its relative absence of human intervention, represents a thirst our tour guide has, a thirst for identity, for self-discovery, for something that exists just barely inside the realm of articulation. There is the endless interrogation of the self here, and we see both the spiritual reckoning as well as the stamp of the identity of a soul that its owner is seeking.
Land and time are themes here, and largely, Stephens’s observations speak of what would seem the inevitable destruction of a pristine land, as well as the onslaught of modernity. We cannot help but feel the writer’s intensity, her sheer love of living, in a sentence like the following, that forced me to look up a word—and really, I do love it when I have to look up a word: “Can I just have life over and over again? Cairn after cairn of moments as moments become days, as days click together like stones?”
In her search for self, for her own history, the author encounters the trope of the indigenous, the original owners of the land, and she claims her own heritage, part Choctaw and Cherokee, as she takes part in the things to do of the American West. These include both powwows and a peculiar re-enactment of the cowboy/Indian battle that she says probably never happened, the so-called “Founder’s Day.”
Honesty—telling the nice and the not-so-nice—permeates both the one telling and that of which she tells. It produces an immediacy that extends to all that’s living, urging the reader to come closer. “That evening,” Stephens writes of her first night in her northern Utah home, “gaga at all the stars we haven’t seen since childhood, I jump out of my skin when a horse across the road floats up to the fence in the blackness, scratching her side against the wire.” It’s the start of something the reader will see, but just the start: “The ease and size and silence of her moving in the near-pitch dark reminds me of sharks in mile-deep water, bogeymen in children’s books. And then there is the spit of a sole ATV crunching gravel as it passes, and then nothing. Our heartbeats.”
What the reader can depend upon is a palpable feeling of being there—and the desire, the longing that will follow when you stop reading, and you find yourself still sitting in your chair that is not in Utah. The prose is intoxicating; Stephens brings her world and her ruminations right up to your face. It shakes down to a search for a self that won’t, in the end, remain in Utah but will be informed by it. Although not its main focus, this story provides a warm light into a working relationship. The reader will witness the vagaries of a rural life that is not fetishized by Stephens. She and her husband became part of this community. If it was a graduate degree in writing that brought her to northern Utah, the focus of this book is not academe, although it would be another graduate degree that would lead her out of Utah, with no small amount of remorse.
In addition to the introspection of a scholar, what you will read here will be several years, several cycles of a small family making a go of it in northern Utah. More than hearing about determining the sex of a chick or what it’s like to ride a horse or to raise goats in a laundry room, you will read about what it’s like to be outsiders in a community that grows its own food, that manages its own livelihood, that takes care of its own losses. Liz Stephens offers a telescopic view of the community that is unrelenting and yet not without compassion.
The Days Are Gods by Liz Stephens is published by the University of Nebraska Press, ©2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.