I just finished reading “The Hidden History of Utah” by Eileen Hallet Stone which I got from a book store in Salt Lake City. I picked it up because I believe that one of the best ways to learn about a culture of a place is to read about its history. The book promised “a revelatory collection of tales” but instead the entire thing felt like a hastily assembled afterthought once the “Living History” column of the Salt Lake Tribune ran its course.
First there was the organization of the book. Each “chapter” of the book is a short article of under 750 words. These are further organized into sections that range from a single chapter to no more than half a dozen chapters. The biggest shortcoming here is that neither the chapter, section, or entire book feels like anyone put more than a few minutes of thought into the organization of the book.
Next there were the stories themselves. It takes an especially skilled writer to be able to tell a compelling story in around 500 – 750 words. You have to cut out the fluff, throw the reader directly into the action, and leave them feeling like they learned something at the end. Sadly, the author failed to do this at every turn. Some stories ended so abruptly that it felt like the author simply gave up after introducing the characters. A handful of stories appeared to use the Kevin Bacon degrees of separation rules to somehow find their way into Utah’s history in the sense that some event happened in some part of the world and because Utah was a state by then, that event was ingrained in the very fabric of its history.
With a title like “Hidden History” written by a journalist, I expected some degree of investigative reporting. Instead, since most stories referenced primary sources found at the Marriot Library at the University of Utah. It seemed like the author spent a weekend reading a random assortment of interviews and then somehow squeezed out 500 words based on what she learned.
By far the most annoying thing for me in reading this book was the way that Stone introduced some of the stories. To paraphrase, some of the introductions were as absurd as this:
“I was watering the flowers in my garden when suddenly I was reminded of what it must have felt like to be a pioneer crossing the great plains with a wagon in the old west.”
“There I was ordering a cappuccino at the Starbucks drive through when I began to think about all of the brave women who fought for voting rights in the late 19th Century.”
As I made my way through the book, I wanted to give each story a fresh chance to make up for the last one. “There is no way that they are all this contrived”, I thought to myself. The closer I got to the end, the more disappointed I became. The elusive hidden history of the great State of Utah remains hidden for me. For a book with the word “story” in the title, it is a shame that Stone was unable to actually tell one.