reviews – The Skeleton in Grandpa’s Barn

The Skeleton in Grandpa's BarnDeseret News, Dennis Lythgoe
This entertaining collection of essays includes eighteen articles that originally appeared in the quarterly, all about growing up in Utah. There is a lot of laughter and energy in these essays because most of them concern childhood experiences, those unique events that become emblazoned upon the memory. Some are written by historians, but an educator, a physician, a musician, and a poet are also represented among the authors.

Stanford Layton, former managing editor of the Utah Historical Quarterly, is now teaching at Weber State University. He is the editor of three other anthologies based on his favorite articles from the quarterly.

As implied in the title, the theme of this volume has to do with youth and the experience of growing up in Utah. There are eighteen articles; nine are first-person memoirs and nine are third-person narrative histories.

With a title like “The Skeleton in Grandpa’s Barn,” one would expect that many of life’s lighter moments would be highlighted in the collection. In fact, in the title story you learn of how the skeleton of a convicted (and executed) murderer ended up in the barn of a member of the LDS First Presidency. Other favorite moments for me included Fae Dix’s “Never Change a Song,” in which she tells of her adolescent humiliation when her father refused to get on board with the church hymn committee and loudly sang the old militant lyrics to the LDS hymn, “O Ye Mountains High” during a choir performance at a ward sacrament meeting.

In “My Garden of Eden,” LaMar Petersen recalls the time in his fifth year when he was led by his father into the family kitchen where, “in the presence of my four sisters, I was placed on the table and pinioned with firm hands while Dr. Olsen wielded his efficient scalpel. My screaming bloody murder did not dissuade him from performing the ancient rite of circumcision. I was plenty mad for two good reasons: it hurt like hell and my sisters were not welcome at ringside.

In “Growing Up Railroad: Remembering Echo City,” Robert Mikkelsen includes a description of the town’s “crack wine gang” who, under the cover of night “armed with braces, half-inch bits, pre-shaped hardwood plugs, hammers, shovels, and gallon lard cans” could rob an east-bound train of several gallons of “California red” from its wooden wine-tank car as it stopped in preparation to enter Echo Canyon. He also remembered a time when he watched an attractive young Hollywood-bound actress get off of a train. He watched her for some time and felt duty bound to watch over her until her connecting train came in. He was very attracted to her but recalled his disappointment at her reaction to the train depot’s outdoor toilet. He stated, “It was the nicest one in town, a big, roomy four-holer, two in the women’s side and two in the men’s. The women’s side had a strong latch, and it got scrubbed clean once a week. But when she saw it she said, ‘Good gawwd.'”

My review of the book’s fun moments would not be complete without mentioning “Glimpses of Ice Skating and Coasting” by Miriam Murphy and Craig Fuller. It includes disruptions of games my wife absolutely refused to let me read to our children. One is the game of “pomp,” which is a game of tag played on a frozen lake with burning tires for goals, the other was “hooky bobber,” which was a form of skating behind automobiles by holding onto the bumper while wearing smooth-soled shoes.

There were also a number of serious, somber, and even heart-wrenching recollections. It is hard not to weep with Saline Fraser in “One Long Day That Went on Forever,” as you read her memoirs of what happened in Castle Gate when “Castle Gate Mine No. 2” exploded on March 8, 1924. This article is especially timely because of the recent coal mine accidents that have occurred in Utah and elsewhere.

“Hide and Seek: Children on the Underground” is an unintentionally timely inclusion, considering what has happened recently in Texas with the FLDS children. It recounts the painful experiences children and families were put through when LDS polygamists went “underground” to evade U.S. marshals in the 1870s and 80s, as the polygamists attempted to follow God’s command to live “the principle.” It puts a human face on so many pioneer stories, as well as the stories currently on the news, and raises many interesting questions: How did they simultaneously teach their children to obey God’s commands and be honest and at the same time deceive strangers and even friends about their family relationships? How much should parents let children suffer for their religious convictions? One idea I especially pondered after reading the article was how, given the similarities between present polygamists and past polygamists, modern Latter-day Saints can celebrate the willingness of nineteenth-century Saints to suffer for their convictions while so quickly dismissing the FLDS for their determination to do the same?

Two other serious articles caused me much contemplation. In Yoshiko Uchida’s “Topaz: City of Dust,” she described living in the Topaz concentration camp and of the vain attempts she and her fellow prisoners made to keep up a normal life during their imprisonment in the “land of the free.” In Sondra Jones’s “Redeeming the Indian: Enslavement of Children in New Mexico and Utah,” the author tells of the attempts by Catholics and Mormons to Chrstianize the American Indians of the Southwest and the lasting impact this had on the native culture.

The only problem I had with this book was Layton’s inclusion of Gary Bergera’s article, “The Murderous Pain of Living: Thoughts on the Life and Death of Everett Ruess.” It seemed out of place within the theme of “growing up in Utah.” The other articles all followed the theme as either recollections of people who had spent some portion of their childhood in Utah or as third-person accounts of what it had been like during different periods of Utah’s history. I must admit that I had never heard of Ruess, and it seems he may be more significant than I realized. However, it seemed to me that Reuess did not do much “growing up” in Utah. He spent some time in Utah’s wilderness and found great solace there. He even disappeared and probably died there. But the article is about how Everett may or may not have had medical problems, may or may not have had depression, may or may not have been bisexual, and may or may not have committed suicide in Utah. It is an intriguing article and has merit in its own right. It deserves to be in a collection, just not this one.

As I read “The Skeleton in Grandpa’s Barn,” I laughed, I cried, I learned some great lessons, and I gained a greater appreciation for my home state and all of its idiosyncrasies. The articles in this book are the kind that make history fun and cause you to care about all of those names you read in books or hear about in church and school classes. I recommend this book to all. It is a worthy entry to the series, a great complement to the historical quarterly, and a wonderful accomplishment by Stanford Layton and Signature Books.

Utah Historical Quarterly, Colleen Whitley
“The Skeleton in Grandpa’s Barn” presents episodes in Utah history from the viewpoint of children, a crucial and often overlooked perspective. Stanford Layton, former editor of the Utah Historical Quarterly, has chosen eighteen excellent articles previously published in the quarterly, each accompanied by an historic photograph, dealing with topics that reflect the state’s history and that range from hilarious to tragic.

That contrast becomes evident in the first two articles. Fae Dix recalls her acute teen-age angst when her father refused to follow the instructions of the LDS Church’s music committee to soften the militant lyrics of several old Mormon hymns. When he belted out the old lyrics, louder than the rest of the choir sang the new ones, her sister found a method of revenge that could occur only to a Mormon child and that left me laughing out loud. Immediately following that are Saline Fraser’s memories, carefully recorded and annotated by her daughter, Marianne, of March 8, 1924. She traces her experiences and emotions as the family hears the explosions at the Castle Gate Coal Mine and subsequently learns that both her father and grandfather were among the 172 miners killed.

Eleven of the eighteen articles are first-person accounts. Seven describe the authors’ lives in specific Utah towns: LaMar Petersen recalls his family home and his father’s store, which included the post office, in Eden. Robert S. Mikkelsen describes growing up with Union Pacific trains running near his home in Echo and then the town’s death when those trains stopped coming. Josephine Pace remembers the buildings, but most of all the people, of Kimberly. “Growing up Greek in Helper,” Helen Z. Papanikolas felt safe in her small town of Greeks, Italians, Irish, and Americans despite forays by the Ku Klux Klan. Fawn M. Brodie remembers the debts and difficulties associated with the family farm in Huntsville.

Yoshiko Uchida recalls a very different kind of town, Topaz, the camp hastily cobbled together to contain Japanese Americans interned during World War II. From the poignancy of a Boy Scout marching band greeting new arrivals at the gates of the still incomplete town to dust and cold that drove people inside inadequate buildings, she helps readers feel her own emotions and those of the children in the nursery school where she and her sister worked.

Herbert Z. Lund Jr. remembers the skeleton of a murderer executed at the Utah State Prison, “bedded down with old issues of the Improvement Era.” His father, a physician at the prison, had been given the remains and boiled it to a skeleton in a field north of Beck’s Hot Springs (reportedly terrifying a passing hobo) to make it into a teaching specimen. Nevada W. Driggs shares her mother’s stories collected from the pioneers of Parowan, including her grandmother’s recollections of a nearly frozen John C. Fremont recovering in her bed.

Seven articles are academic in approach, from David A. Hales’s collection of stories about gypsies coming through town to Miriam B. Murphy and Craig Fuller’s study of children’s winter games in ice and snow. Gary James Bergera uses Everett Ruess’s writings to examine his mysterious disappearance in the Utah desert. Sondra Jones compares whites raising Indian children purchased in New Mexico (to be slaves) and Utah (to be redeemed) and finds striking similarities between the treatment children received in both states. Davis Bitton compares views of late nineteenth-century Mormon frontier youth from LDS members and gentiles.

Two articles focus on polygamy. William Hartley’s “in-depth look at an everyday, garden variety plural LDS family during its child-rearing years” between 1865 and 1896 presents a careful study of the ordinary elements of growing up and the children’s subsequent behavior as adults, while Martha Sonntag Bradley’s discussion of children hiding from federal authorities when one or both parents were sent to prison in the late nineteenth century may well offer insights into the feelings of FLDS children recently taken from their parents in Texas.

“The Skeleton in Grandpa’s Barn,” the fourth volume in Signature’s Favorite Readings series, entertains while it informs. Each selection is fascinating by itself, and collectively they present a broad and inclusive picture of significant elements in Utah’s history.