A shared love of the Utah landscape heals family wounds for two unlikely friends in this tale of restoration in the wake of loss and betrayal.
A shared love of the Utah landscape heals family wounds for two unlikely friends in this tale of restoration in the wake of loss and betrayal.
Zacharias Harker is a brilliant botanist and an aging recluse. Haunted by his mistakes and living without his wife and daughter for the past twenty years, he hatches the idea to write his magnum opus, a book on the implications of climate change for humanity focused on the wildflowers of Utah's Wasatch Mountains. Just prior to the tragedy of 9/11, he hires a young artist, Alba, to paint flowers for the book. Over the course of their unlikely friendship, Harker convinces Alba to return to Chile to learn the story of her father's disappearance under Pinochet. Alba's discovery of her family history and her experience listening to the stories of Chileans who have resisted a government ruled by fear inspire her return to Utah with renewed purpose.
As America grows more distrusting of immigration and diversity, Alba commits her art to the protection of the environment and to a more inclusive meaning of family and belonging, while she and her husband, John, strive to learn Harker's hidden past and include him in their lives before it is too late. Rooted in the Mormon heritage of Utah but hemispheric in its reach, American Fork is a story of restoration and healing in the wake of loss and betrayal.
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In his debut novel George Handley displays the same attentive care to the color and bend of a single leaf as he does to the tempo and tenor of the human heart. The two really aren’t so different—each existing within larger webs of relationship, each displaying something of the majesty and precariousness of God. American Fork is a book about intersections—environmental, national, personal, and theological. Aging environmentalist Zach (Zacharias) Harker enlists Chilean immigrant, artist, student, and newlywed Alba Hidalgo to create art for his book project. As a researcher who never finished his PhD, the seventy-plus-year-old Harker wants to create a tome displaying nature’s intricate interconnectivity as well as humanity’s urgent need to change our destructive behaviors which compromise the whole. “This book [we’re creating] isn’t about finding and naming plants,” he tells the young artist, “It’s about creating relationships between the reader and this place” (141). His text, alongside her art, will guide the reader to see the inseparability between humans and our environment. Despite his academic-artistic argument for connectivity, Harker himself is an isolated man trapped by the dead ends, losses, and regrets of his personal history. By contrast, Alba is energized and pulled forward by mysteries from her past—a father she barely remembers who was “disappeared” in Chile under the terrors of Pinochet’s regime. During the course of their project Harker encourages Alba, somewhat to the chagrin of Alba’s white American Mormon husband John, to seek the truth about her past in Chile. What she discovers leaves her more deeply rooted in her past but more free to create a future that transcends it. Harker is an irascible hermit of Utah’s American Fork, a nature lover, a cultural critic whose former Mormon faith sticks in his fingers like slivers—small flecks of history and doctrine, slightly painful, irritating; he can’t help but apply pressure to them, running his fingers together, resisting the urge to extract them because something in him seems to relish the pain of past faith. In fact, for a self-proclaimed agnostic Harker spends a good deal of time thinking about at least the implications of God—a not unusual impulse for someone who grew up in an environment dominated by religion. Harker’s God, if there is one, has to account for the ants, the microbes, the defecation, as much as the shining sun and stars in their glory, as much as the humans walking the earth. One of Harker’s keenest insights comes early on: “I suppose if I find God, it is when I lose myself in this world, and that is not really so much a discovery of something or someone divine as it is a peaceful acceptance that I too am a dying body” (51). Faith as peaceful acceptance of uncertainty—and ultimately death—is a stunning theology, but one that will be hard-won in the end, in the actual breathing out of a life like Harker’s, riddled as it is by sorrow over the loss of family. Liberal-inclined Latter-day Saints will find familiar tropes in Harker’s complaints: Girls marry too young and postpone or abandon their education as a result; young men pursue business or law, money-making opportunities to be good providers, without thinking of larger questions about justice; people of faith offer platitudes about God helping them find their keys while their neighbor dies of cancer; earth stewardship has no home for many Mormons who believe the Lord will take care of the earth and the second coming will be here soon enough. If Harker’s continuous environmental rants are true—we humans have set ourselves apart from nature in so many ways with our temperature-controlled homes and selfish modes of transportation, and yes, climate change is real and humans are its driving factor—then what does Handley gain by placing them in the mouth of a character many Latter-day Saint readers will likely find off-putting, if not outright arrogant and unbelieving? This gets to the heart of Handley’s first novelistic effort, and it’s a subject that plays out within the book itself in a discussion over the function of art (see p. 61). Should it lull, confirm, and pacify, or does the best art challenge and confront? As if in answer to this very question, American Fork itself is not light reading. The underlying current of angst through its first half only slightly lifts as the novel’s pace picks up later on. Angst about familial disconnect. About environmental degradation. About lost faith. Apathetic and environmentally unconscious Mormons aren’t the only ones challenged in American Fork. Harker makes occasional honest efforts to remember that Latter-day Saints have hearts, endure pains, and can exhibit the ability to step outside of themselves. Alba and her husband are unapologetically and enthusiastically Mormon and they are growing on him. Through Harker, Handley calls both the bright-eyed as well as the cynical readers to repentance. This is straightforward “art as repentance” (79)—an especially precarious effort always threatening to devolve into soppy platitude or hypocritical harangue. Handley skillfully navigates these shoals, almost always with the appropriate level of subtly. The questions raised in American Fork will stick with you, sliver-like, just under the surface of your skin, and then down deep in your heart (if those questions aren’t already there, in which case it’s still moving to find co-wonderers like these). Is the experience of “fullness” in life static, or is it dynamic? Through an attentive environmental lens, Handley affirms dynamism, which allows for freedom and connection but also entails much suffering, risk, and pain—all with the possibility of discovering joy and, perhaps, recompense. ~ Blair Hodges, By Common Consent at https://bycommonconsent.com/2018/09/20/review-handley-american-fork/
George Handley’s debut novel, “American Fork,” artfully weaves together themes of religion, environment, memory, belonging, nation, faith, and loss with haunting prose and wonderful insight. This novel stands apart as a beautiful, well-crafted story with fully fleshed-out characters. The individual pains and desires of these characters invite readers to invest in their stories in a transformative way. “American Fork” centers on an unexpected friendship between Alba Powell, a young Chilean-born Brigham Young University MFA student, and Zacharias Harker, an aging, cantankerous botanist. Harker hires Alba to paint flowers for a book he is writing on the Wasatch Mountains. Although the two initially butt heads, Alba and Harker develop a powerful bond that will lead them both toward healing. Deep in the canyon of American Fork, Utah, Harker teaches Alba about the importance of context, asking her to paint an individual flower with attention to its relation to what surrounds it. Ultimately, Harker encourages Alba to consider her own context with more purpose. As an immigrant and second-generation member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Alba has difficulty finding her place in a predominately white community with “pioneer” heritage. After the attacks of 9/11, Alba becomes increasingly aware of her ethnic difference as Americans seem “increasingly anxious about so many strangers in their midst.” This prompts her to wonder if “maybe she had become, or had always been, one of those strangers, not a fellow citizen with the saints as she had been made to feel so early in her life.” Her feeling of rootlessness is compounded by the mystery surrounding her father, who was “disappeared” during the Pinochet regime in the 1980s. Harker’s lectures on ecological context inspire Alba to return to Chile and search for information about her father to make sense of her fragmented past. Alba’s experiences in Chile comprise some of the most powerful chapters in the novel. It is a journey of healing and reclamation as Alba reconciles the dual parts of herself, like the forking of a river. She writes to Harker from Chile, “[F]ork, you know, implies a kind of split or division, which is only because we are looking at it in the wrong direction, upstream… What appears to divide or split or force a choice is really reunion, confluence when seen looking downstream.” Alba realizes her perspective has been all wrong. Whereas she previously saw her past as irrevocably broken, she now realizes that fragments can be grafted together through imagination and creativity. She no longer mourns her “fragmented” identity. She leaves Chile with an expansive sense of self, understanding that she can make a “home out of perpetual homesickness.” The force of this personal revelation is magnified by geography. When Alba returns to Utah, she envisions the mountains that surround Santiago imposed on the Wasatch Mountains and realizes that she “would always see in stereo a world forked apart by continental drift, by history, by language, and by politics, but those external and formal markers of difference could only temporarily disguise the profound underground currents of kinship that knitted the hemisphere into a whole.” To see division is to look in “the wrong direction.” Thus, “American Fork’s” title not only acknowledges the specific setting for Harker’s Utah home and the canyon that he and Alba explore, but also points towards Handley’s hemispheric approach. In the context of this novel, American (in the broadest sense of the term) is inclusive and transnational. North and South America’s differences diminish in the context of shared tragedy. Handley skillfully emphasizes this by setting the novel in 2001, linking the U.S.’s national tragedy of 9/11 with the Chilean trauma of the Pinochet dictatorship, marked by a coup d’état 28 years earlier on Sept. 11, 1973. This historical coincidence takes on poetic meaning as Alba triangulates the tragedy of 9/11, the traumatic legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship, and the pain of her own fragmented past. The novel’s transnational focus sets “American Fork” apart from most LDS literature, which is dominated by U.S. and European authors and characters. Handley’s novel is refreshingly hemispheric in scope, making it an important literary contribution inside and outside of an LDS literary context. Its exploration of the terror and trauma endured by those who suffered (and continue to suffer) because of Pinochet evokes Isabel Allende’s “House of the Spirits.” And like Allende’s debut novel, “American Fork” emphasizes the value of creativity in the face of a nightmarish history. By way of themes, “American Fork” is similar to a recent novel by Handley’s BYU colleague Steven Peck, whose “Gilda Trillim” also illuminates the intersection of biology and theology, with the concept relation as fulcrum. Alba addresses the power of relation when she writes to Harker from Chile about her encounter with Mapuche poetry: It was as if I had heard that language all of my life, and I don’t just mean the Mapuche language—I mean the language, I guess, of the planet. I felt as if the pain he expressed was not unique to him or even to human beings, that it was maybe part of a suffering the beauty of nature asks us to share with one another, with the promise of a kind of healing that I associate with the suffering of Jesus but which is expressed by the Mapuche as the suffering of the earth itself. There are spirits among us, that I have always believed. I used to think it was my father. But they came before us. It’s a crowded earth and we are not alone in our sorrows. And something holy in our tears. Here’s a line I have translated for you in a poem about the copihue and the chucao: “Your tears, you should give them to the flowers.” This passage is a kind of microcosm of the whole novel as it illustrates the interweaving themes of environment, religion, and human suffering. The idea that nature’s beauty asks us to share suffering with one another is reflected in Alba and Harker’s friendship. Although Harker understands the importance of context and relation ecologically, he has lost sight of the importance of human connection. His relationship with Alba allows him to relearn that truth. “American Fork” asks its readers to consider the importance of connection, whether that be in their personal relationships, their connection to the environment, or their relationship with God, though the novel’s discussion of religion is not overbearing or cliché-ridden. Through Harker, Handley explores the question, and even the burden, of faith with frankness; yet, hope abounds. This hope is encapsulated in the novel’s definition of redemption as “bringing [things] back into proper context and…perceiving them in the light of love, whereby they rejoin themselves to the Great Body of Truth.” Through this understanding of redemption in “American Fork,” Handley again emphasizes the importance of relation and context. We can only find ourselves when we recognize our place in relation to what surrounds us: people, nature, and the Divine. ~ Kristina Gibby, 15 Bytes: Utah's Art Magazine
It’s difficult to know where to start in discussing a novel as thoughtful as American Fork. Politics, religion, belonging, family history, ecology, sense of place, the high costs of love and our dogged willingness to pay that price over and over again—these themes are not just touched upon but probed with sensitivity and skill. Perhaps the reason for this daring breadth of concerns is found in the mantra of Zacharias Harker, an ill-tempered retired botanist and lapsed Mormon: “Nothing exists by itself and nothing exists without context” (13). For Mr. Harker, as he is known throughout the novel, it is folly of the worst kind to try to understand a plant species, or even an ecosystem, removed from its larger context. Instead, a plant is one component of a complex system of relationships and histories. If this is true of plants, then how much more so is it for human beings and their individual stories? While American Fork takes as its subject the friendship of Mr. Harker and Alba, a BYU student and talented painter of Chilean descent, the novel reveals an intricate ecosystem of interrelated stories set in the mountains of Utah and Chile. Only in understanding these stories—the context of each of their lives—do the characters see one another, and themselves, in truth and compassion. At first, viewing Mr. Harker with compassion is no small task. He is cantankerous and opinionated to the point of arrogance, not the trope of the grumpy-but-harmless old man. Imagine a mixture of Hugh Nibley and Edward Abbey in their more irritable moments. His observations are often cutting, and his discourses on ecology devolve into full-throated diatribes against Mormon environmental indifference and nearly every technological development since the Industrial Revolution. He hires Alba to paint illustrations for a book that would be his life’s opus, a work that studies wildflowers of the Wasatch Mountains in their proper ecological context. The plants in his book must be painted in this context, and in this Alba proves an able artist who shares with Harker a sense of being a cultural outsider. Mr. Harker’s exasperation with Mormons (or rather the sometimes painfully accurate stereotypes he rails against) comes up against a puzzle in Alba, whose life resists his caricatures in every way. She is not a multigenerational white Mormon of Utah Valley mindlessly submitting to cultural inertia. Yet neither is she the disgruntled Mormon looking for ways to define herself against an oppressive majority. Her faith is intelligent, independent, and courageous. She doubts Mr. Harker’s professed atheism, as well has his disaffection with the Church, and pushes back on many of his observations, but she has no aim to make him her reactivation project. Over the course of their budding friendship and lengthy conversations about the interconnectedness of life, Alba grows increasingly frustrated at the fragmented nature of her family’s story. Unlike her husband who comes from pioneer heritage and boasts an extensive family tree, Alba knows nothing of her family’s past. The story of her father who “disappeared” (a Chilean euphemism for being secretly executed) during the dictatorship of Pinochet remains a mystery closely guarded by her mother. At four years old, Alba and her mother had come to the United States as political refugees after her father’s disappearance. Alba is left to piece together a story in which she imagines her father as a heroic member of the leftist resistance to Pinochet’s regime, a dangerous work that left thousands of Chileans imprisoned, tortured, and disappeared. At Mr. Harker’s urging and financial support, Alba returns to Chile to discover the truth of her father and, more importantly, make contact with a culture and heritage she wishes to embrace, rather than flee, as she believes her mother has done. At this point the novel came alive in a particular way for me, as I served my mission in Chile in 1995, just six years after the dictatorship ended. I was interested, and somewhat apprehensive, to see how Handley would treat the complexities of Chile’s recent past. President Allende, a Marxist, was democratically elected in a close, three-way election in 1970. His efforts to nationalize major industries were met with strong opposition from the Chilean congress and military. The United States, fearing Chile would become a Cuba-style client state of the Soviet Union, supported General Pinochet’s military coup and deposition of Allende on September 11, 1973. Pinochet’s brutal suppression of political dissidents is well-documented and not to be downplayed. The legacy of the coup, however, is more complicated than the story of noble socialists resisting a brutal dictator. Sweeping economic reforms jump-started the Chilean economy, and the dictatorship did come to an end in 1989. To this day, Chile is one of the most stable and prosperous democracies in South America, yet the deep wounds and division of the past remain. During my mission, I marveled at how the legacy of Pinochet was still a deep source of division. In one Chilean home, he was a hero who rescued the country from communism. In another, he was a tyrant who should be tried and executed. Would Alba’s journey to Chile acknowledge this complexity? To that point in the novel, she had idealized what she imagined as her father’s political heroism. Without revealing too much, I will say that Handley skillfully avoids an abstract historical debate by focusing on the human toll of the dictatorship, the concrete way in which it tore families apart, both physically and ideologically. Alba discovers, through those who were no friends of Pinochet, that healing and reconciliation will best come through keeping alive the stories of those who suffered, by bringing to light the names and faces of the “disappeared.” Understanding her own family story in Chile, Alba is set free to love her mother and forgive her secrecy. Freed from the mystery, she is empowered to define her own place in her family and community in America and find belonging in it. Mr. Harker’s restlessness is a different kind of problem, entrenched by years of regret and pain. Unlike with Alba, it is not the sins and stories of others he must make peace with, but his own. A significant portion of American Fork consists of lengthy letters written to his absent daughter, letters he will not send but continues writing for his own healing. The letters reveal a softer and more vulnerable Harker, one who loved his daughter and her mother deeply (the reason for their absence is not revealed until later in the novel) but who is haunted by failures for which he has not forgiven himself. We see a man whose passions will not leave him in peace. He withdraws into his home mountains for peace, but even this withdrawal does not bring him comfort. The intensity of his devotion to the landscape and its ecology turn him into a fretful, angry parent whose children—the mountains and valleys of Utah—are under constant threat of global warming and overdevelopment. The Mormons receive the brunt of his anger. Joseph Smith bequeathed a doctrine that could have allowed for a radical theology of environmental stewardship. Instead, the Mormons squandered this birthright for a mess of American consumerism. Apart from oldfashioned greed, there is the problem of an eschatology that has Jesus cleansing the Earth with fire and setting everything straight. What is the point of caring given such a prospect? Harker’s anger at God and Mormonism is not the sneering of a true secularist so much as the pain of one who lost his faith through crushing disillusionment. That he is not resolved in his renunciation of God or the Church is evident in his mixed use of pronouns. Harker sometimes forgets himself as the hardened outsider and refers to Mormons as “we” rather than “they.” American Fork is a novel rich in deep and thoughtful dialogue. This strength could also be viewed as a weakness. The characters’ extensive conversations at times resemble well-composed essays. It may require a suspension of disbelief that so many of the novel’s people are capable of the kind of heady and articulate speech that is put into their mouths. But for those who relish in such depth of discussion, this aspect of the book will be a delight. I don’t often get chocked up when reading fiction, but by the end of American Fork I found myself blinking back tears to keep the page in focus. The final chapter indulges in no easy sentimentality, but the tenderness and authenticity of seeing flawed people loving one another imperfectly, turned my attention to my own wife and children. The book caused me to reflect on how much I need their forgiveness, and how fearful it is to love deeply when we know that at any moment, through accident or choice, love can turn to pain. Indeed, every moment of affection and vulnerability is juxtaposed with the threat of loss or rejection. And yet we sign up again and again, because nothing exists by itself, and as the novel beautifully illustrates, life only flourishes in the context of our relations to others. American Fork is a moving and thought-provoking work that makes a significant contribution to not only Mormon literature, but the literature of ecology and place in the American West. ~ Sheldon Lawrence , Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Summer 2018, pp 214-219
Spanning the mountain landscapes of the Great Basin and the coastal valleys of Chile, George Handley’s first novel American Fork explores deep personal questions: how can solace be found in the aftermath of personal betrayal or catastrophic loss? Are family ties merely an artifact of shared ancestry, or can we claim, and if needs be, renounce kinship on the basis of personal affinity or revulsion? Does a spiritual connection to the earth replace or augment religious conviction? Replete with detail, Handley’s description of the ongoing debate between a believing young woman and a grizzled religious sceptic builds to a stunning but deeply moving conclusion. Following on the success of his environmental memoir Home Waters, Handley has here produced the most important ecological novel set in Utah since Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. ~ Paul Alan Cox, Goldman Environmental Prize Winner and TIME Hero of Medicine
"We know that novels are fictional, so we see them as unreal, and yet the very best twine inextricably with our lives to become part of our reality. George Handley’s masterful American Fork unifies sadness and beauty, individuals and communities, humans and nature in profound and unforgettable ways. Alba and Mr Harker’s intersecting quests reveal (or remind) that everything is connected, everything significant, not only in the world of the book, but in our world, which is the same." --Pat Madden, author of Sublime Physick ~ Patrick Madden, personal communication
"This is a riveting story, beautifully written and skillfully told. It engages the reader in a fresh exploration of enduring themes of family and culture, nature and religion. It will change your perspective as it did mine." --Mary Evelyn Tucker, Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology ~ Mary Evelyn Tucker, personal communication
"George Handley’s novel, American Fork, is a significant contribution to American letters. Handley is a familiar voice in Utah’s environmental movement. His creative non-fiction work, Home Waters, which explores the history and meaning of the Provo River drainage, has already become a classic in Western ecological literature. This new novel will place Handley among that small group of Western writers who have beautifully mastered both fiction and creative non-fiction in ways that make his work in both unforgettable. Like his previous books, Handley immerses you in a sense of place, and draws a rich portrait of the land and its people. American Fork expands on that vision in this splendid novel, which ranges from Utah’s Wasatch Front to the heart of Chile. From the opening scenes, we are pulled into the nuanced and captivating lives of the novel’s memorable characters, Zach Harker and Alba. And as we come to understand their complexity, fragility, and weaknesses we see a mirror of the same in the landscapes they inhabit. Handley has a created a modern classic. This will be read for a long time, but there is no sense in delaying the pleasure and depth this book will bring. Read it now." --Steve Peck, author of The Scholar of Moab and Gilda Trillum: Shepherdess of Rats. ~ Steve Peck, personal communication
"A leading voice in Mormon environmentalism—not an oxymoron—George Handley also speaks to the global ethics of stewardship. From his Utah home, he sees the world. Handley envisions a consilience of science, religion, and democracy—a gift of imagination in our current climate of danger.” —Jared Farmer, author of On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape ~ Jared Farmer, personal communication
"In this God-haunted story of a Job who has long since cursed God and the young Mormon artist who learns to reconstitute him, George Handley calls us forcefully to ponder where we as human beings begin and end. Where, in the glorious tangles of biology, ecology, genealogy, theology, mortal misery, and divine mystery can we be found, and who will, at last, do the finding? In this passionate environmental novel, Handley proposes a troubling, insightful, and deeply Mormon solution to the centuries-old question of theodicy: how could God possibly be good when our lives are, too often, broken by grief?" --Samuel Morris Brown, author of Through the Valley of Shadows: Living Wills, Intensive Care, and Making Medicine Human ~ Samuel Morris Brown, personal communication
Praise for Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River "What a pleasing book. George Handley has calmly scripted a place-based masterwork.... again and again, the writing lifted me with its precise similes or its able flexing of metaphorical muscle."--Jeffrey McCarthy, author of Green Modernism ~ Jeffrey McCarthy, Western American Literature
Praise for Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River "You’ll enjoy this masterful book, which is destined to become a classic"--Richard Cracroft, BYU Magazine ~ Richard Cracroft, BYU Magazine
Praise for Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River "practices theology like a doctor practices CPR: not as secondhand theory but as a chest-cracking, lung-inflating, life-saving intervention.... It's what you've been wanting to read." --Adam Miller, author of Letters to a Young Mormon ~ Adam Miller, Times and Seasons(blog)