Knowing where you’re going takes all the fun out of getting there…
Kara McAllister is lost and she knows it. That’s why she is drawn to a strange Rand- McNally map of the Inter-mountain West that she finds in a Powell’s Bookstore in Portland as she is running away from a failed relationship, a successful career – and herself. How she comes to find a new relationship, a new career, and, ultimately, herself, is the central narrative of Denny Wilkins’ first novel, Mapping Utah.
It’s Kara who is the protagonist of this work. That must be understood before the novel’s achievement reveals itself. There are plenty of antagonists: bad guys who would ruin delicate wilderness areas for their petty amusements, corrupt police and politicians who sell the public trust, bad lovers who see their relationships as conveniences.
But there’s only one Kara. And it’s her deconstruction and reconstruction that drives Wilkins’ novel and makes Mapping Utah more than ripping good yarn – which it is, by the way.
This is a book with romance, geology, action, botany, suspense, technology, politics, weightlifting. There’s a way in for almost any reader, in other words, no matter how escapist or academic or transactional (think “how to”) his/her tastes might be. The book is a page turner, but it’s a page turner with lessons: interestingly (almost cunningly), most of these lessons are about responsibility in one form or another: environmental, political, legal, personal. Kara must learn, in one way or another, lessons in each of these areas.
Her primary teacher is Noah Hartshorn, the novel’s other significant protagonist. Like Kara, Noah is a flawed but admirable character who is trying to find his way. Mapping Utah is as much about how Kara and Noah become each other’s maps as it is about maps of Utah. Both Kara and Noah have somehow gotten lost. Kara has succumbed to the siren song of technology and lost her sense of its real purpose – to serve humanity; Noah has dedicated himself to atonement for perceived wrongs against the environment which has led him to fight crime with crime. In finding each other these two somehow find, in Kara’s case, clarity of purpose, and, in Noah’s, the realization that wrong against wrong is not the same as right against wrong.
The novel breaks into three sections: Kara’s journey from Seattle to Green River, Utah, a journey that is spiritual, psychological, and emotional as well as geographical; a second, perhaps overlong section that develops the relationship between Kara and Noah; and the third, almost too brief, section that offers a surprising (and both troubling and suspenseful) climax with a thoroughly satisfying denouement. The most engrossing section for this reader was the first. Wilkins does an excellent job getting inside Kara’s head and conveying her conflicted feelings about her boyfriend, job, and life. Peppered into this first section is enough material on Noah to intrigue readers and create anticipation for their meeting – which the author orchestrates both cleverly and believably. The middle section slows the book down (whether too much is going to depend on the reader’s patience with the realities of romance vs. the serendipities of the Nicholas Sparks crowd) as it patiently allows Kara (and Noah) to do some healing (and learning) – thanks in large part to Noah’s ministrations. The third part turns the tables – Noah does some learning (and healing) thanks in large part to Kara’s care.
Amid all this soul searching and lovey-dovey stuff there are reader lessons in geology, botany, aeronautics, environmental science, and a number of other subjects. And, as I note, the ending is bang up good – sort of expected but with a depth that saves it from being too pat. Wilkins connects the escapist reader’s dots even as he makes one think a little more deeply than one might have expected to.
Mapping Utah does what any good book should do – it takes you someplace and leaves you with plenty to ponder about the journey.