Where Nothing is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood, by Virginia Sorensen
This lovely childhood memoir by a Newbery-winning author evokes a subculture that is now as foreign and puzzling as almost any you can think of. Virginia Sorensen writes about life in a Utah farming town with strong Danish roots, and it seems to cover approximately 1917-1924 or so. And she really knows how to start a story...
Virginia is about nine, playing in the hot summer weather, when Brother Tolsen comes running over, having just killed his neighbor during a dispute; the neighbor had twice blocked Tolsen's water in order to take it himself. In the dry Utah climate, water for irrigation was of the first importance, and access to streams was carefully scheduled so that everyone would get a fair share. Water-stealing was a terrible crime, and the entire community agreed that Brother Tolsen had acted in the defense of his family and livelihood. They were relieved when the court case was decided in his favor, and felt sorry for the dead man's wife, because who could believe that her own husband could be a water-stealer?
I already knew about the irrigation system and how water-stealing was seen, and I was still stunned by this story. There is quite a lot of culture here that readers may find a little difficult to grasp.
Sorensen goes on in a more moderate vein, describing a loving family (with its own complexities) and a nearly idyllic country setting where children could venture out and play unsupervised. The stories are enchanting, as with her adoration of her kitten--Jiggs is one of the main characters--or funny, as with her love of going to funerals. Others are painful; her beloved grandfather falls in love with a younger woman and is never welcome again. She is terrified by a Peeping Tom. And finally, as she gets older, there's a little bit of romance.
It's a wonderfully evocative memoir of a childhood, a time, and a culture that are now vanished. It's probably difficult to get a copy of this book, though; mine is a loan, an ex-library copy from the early 1960s and I couldn't even find an image of it on the net. It would be sad if it disappeared, but maybe ebooks will save it someday.