An elderly woman reflects on her early years living as a Mormon on the run in author Simmons’ absorbing debut novel, based on a true story.
In 1898 Utah, 10-year-old Mary Higginsen, her nearly blind mother, and her brothers and sisters are taken by their father to Billie’s Mountain to live in a cave to avoid his arrest for polygamy. Mary and her relatives are a second family; Father has another wife to whom he is legally wed. After helping them to settle in, Father returns to town to his first family, leaving elder son Zebedee in charge. Believing the separation from Father to be temporary, the children work nearly constantly, cooking, washing and planting, although their efforts are sometimes for naught. Earnest Zebedee remains thankful for small mercies, but recalcitrant Mary has doubts: “If this was God’s idea of a blessing, it certainly was a sorry one.” In winter, supplies run dangerously low. As weeks pass without Father, Mary is increasingly angered by her family’s blind trust and their predisposition to suffer while Father’s other family presumably lives in comfort. Facing frostbite and starvation, they are rescued by a neighbor, Brother Bigler. He, too, practices plural marriage and is drawn to Mary, who resists his advances. She realizes the significance of polygamy (multiple wives ensure progeny), but Mary has no wish to be submissive or to marry. Although initially a survival tale, recalling some of the sacrifices in Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It (2008), the novel skillfully addresses the claustrophobic, cultlike burden of belief and how a willful individual like Mary could be coerced to comply. Through no fault of their own, the Higginsens are treated like “beggar children” by one of Brother Bigler’s wives, who will later risk her own status in an act of kindness to Mary. Perhaps Brother’s wives aren’t as happy as they claim. Sensing the incongruity, resourceful Mary both adapts and rebels. In a genre saturated with faux apocalyptic tales of teens in peril, here’s an emotionally wrenching narrative out of U.S. history.
Powerful, historically based novel of survival, beliefs, adaptation and resistance.
Salt Lake Tribune
“The Wives of Billie’s Mountain”
Author • Kelly L. Simmons
Publisher • Self-published by Helper Publishing; order at local and Internet bookstores
Pages • 258
Price • $12.99 (ebook $5.99)
About • This self-published 2014 historical novel about the abandoned second family of a polygamist sparked local attention in November when the writer published a Tribune letter to the editor about the Deseret News’ decision not to publish an ad for the book — presumably because the novel is about polygamy, Simmons says.
What works • Advertising censorship isn’t the best reason to seek out the book. Instead, it’s Simmons’ layered, full-bodied character of Mary, a hard-working young girl who runs away from her family rather than accept a polygamist’s proposal. This richly developed story, a fictionalized account based on Simmons’ great-grandmother, offers relevant insight into how institutional changes affect the rank-and-file faithful. But it’s also filled with rich description that makes its early 20th-century setting and people come alive. “In a genre saturated with faux apocalyptic tales of teens in peril, here’s an emotionally wrenching narrative out of U.S. history,” according to the Kirkus reviews.
Author’s background • Simmons, 54, was born in Salt Lake City and lives in Bozeman, Mont. She has worked as a tutor and in publishing and holds an MFA from Queens University, where she worked on shaping “Wives.” She’s currently working on a prequel. While Simmons isn’t a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she claims deep Mormon roots, including her great-aunt, noted Utah-born writer Virginia Sorenson.
Simmons says • As a teenager, she met Mary Higginson Simmons, her great-grandmother, who was in her 80s and seemed “old and scary.” Later, in looking through family pictures, Simmons was surprised to find that Mary had been not just nusually tall, over 6 feet, but also beautiful in her youth. Simmons thought of what she considered her grandmother’s “big life” for more than 20 years before she found her way to writing a fictionalized account. “It took a long time for Mary to talk to me, years and years and years, before I felt like I really got her voice,” Simmons says. She’s proud that several contemporary polygamous wives have responded positively to the book and were moved to seek out the Billie’s Mountain area, near Thistle and Soldier’s Summit, where the story is set.
- Ellen Fagg Weist