Desert Between the Mountains

Michael S. Durham, Author
Michael S. Durham, Author Henry Holt & Company $30 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8050-4161-3
Paperback - 352 pages - 978-0-8061-3186-3
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The most remarkable thing about this fact-filled history of the early days in the great basin of land that lies between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains in present-day Utah and Nevada is how easy it is to read. Durham, author of several volumes in the Smithsonian Guide to Historic America series, is a skillful researcher with an eye for colorful anecdotes. There are no surprises here, no new interpretations of history. Durham has a good word for just about everyone, and the nearest thing to controversy may be that he disagrees with Washington Irving's low opinion of a frontiersman named Joseph R. Walker. Covered are the early explorers (Father Francisco Garces, John Fremont, Kit Carson, among them), but the book hits its stride--and its chief topic--with the arrival in 1847 of Brigham Young and the Mormons. The keystone of the volume is a long and admiring account of the Mormon settlement of Utah, and the history then moves on to conclude with the gold-rushers, silver miners, Pony Express riders and the railroads, which brought both the Irish and Chinese to the region. The book ends with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, which Durham sees as the end to the frontier and the Indian way of life, although Indians play a very small role in his story. This is well-written history at its most easygoing. Photos not seen by PW. (Sept.)
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