I am excited to tell you about a book written by a friend of mine, Sarah Dunster. I worry that in saying she is a friend you will think I am going to say good things about her book out of obligation, but the truth is she's an excellent author with a very well-written story. It contains enough surprises and excitement to keep you engaged until the end. I love books based on history, and this one involves the history of a city which I especially love.
Here is a brief description of the book:
After surviving the tragic deaths of her parents and baby sister and a harrowing trek across the plains to Utah, it’s no surprise that Maggie’s nights are plagued by nightmares.
But after years of harsh treatment by her foster mother and sisters, and memories that seem to hint at an unthinkable crime, Maggie is forced to strike out on her own. To separate the truth from the dreams, Maggie faces a painful ordeal and learns that she’ll need to put her trust in those around her to survive.
Sarah was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her novel. Read on...
What inspired you to write Lightning Tree?
It started with the idea of writing an immigrant-convert story, and then developed into a story about loss, family, adoption and the issues surrounding a cultural change as part of conversion. And then it also became a love story for Provo—in the ten years I’ve lived in Provo, I have fallen so deeply in love with the history and the pioneers who settled here.
Reading Lightning Tree made me want to learn more about Provo's early history. Was your story based on actual historical events?
Absolutely. I was a bit nutty, to tell you the truth, in trying to make everything as accurate as possible—from the kind of weather they had on that day the troops rode into town to exactly where in the city blocks the stores and buildings fell. I’ll never look at the streets of Provo the same after doing the research for this story… I’ll look at a hump in the pavement along center street and wonder if it was an old foundation, I’ll look at old buildings and wonder who lived there.
Were any of the characters in the story inspired by real people?
I have to be careful about this one. I’ve been told to say “no.” But in a way… sort of. The people in my story are fiction because the things they do are fiction, and you can’t ever get a good enough picture of people through historical accounts, photographs or family histories to portray a person. But some of my characters are halfway based on people and families who actually lived back then… but I do not claim to have made this in any way a biography of people who lived in Provo. It’s fiction. I haven’t named them after anyone real. There are a few characters that had to be real in order for it to be a historical novel—Judge Cradlebaugh, for instance, and Bishop Wall who lead the militia. And of course, Brigham Young.
Do you have a favorite character (or is this like asking if you have a favorite child)?
It kind of is like asking if you have a favorite child! I like all of the characters for different reasons. My favorite character (after Maggie of course) might be Pa Alden. Or maybe even Ma Alden. I like how Ma Alden is someone you don’t really see fully or understand until further on in the story.
Did you know how the story would end when you started to write it or was it more of an evolution?
I had a few ideas of how it would end. I followed through on those. But there were things that surprised me. I think it’s important to be willing to let a story evolve, as you say… sometimes better things flow from the subconscious than what you initially outline.
Do you have any interesting facts you'd like to add?
Maybe one thing would be, the anecdote at the beginning of the story, with the mattress, comes directly from my own family history. One of my pioneer ancestors was adopted after his parents lost their lives on the trail. His adoptive family hid some things from him. He found his biological family’s name on a mattress the family owned, and it caused a crisis that lead him to run away from home at fifteen, which is the same age as Maggie, my main character. In a way, maybe this story was a bit of a “happy ending” retelling of a tale that has disturbed me a little. There are so many interesting things in family history if you dig a little. The pioneers were people just like us, who had problems just like us. I loved being able to portray the pioneers as real people.
If you're interested, you can find out more about getting yourself a copy of Lightning Tree here.
By the way, I was given a copy of Lightning Tree in order to write this review. But it would have been pretty hard to do so without a copy of the book, don't you think? I wasn't compensated in any way, although someday I'd love to be paid for reading books and eating eclairs.