Wednesday, July 7, 2021

STRANGE BEGINNINGS: Or my Week in Another World: Guest Post by Kathryn Casey

Kathryn Casey: 
Strange Beginnings: Or my week in another world  

I was surrounded by children of all sizes. The couch overflowed with girls in prairie dresses, the chairs were crowded with boys in slacks and long-sleeved shirts, and a group of the youngest girls sat cross-legged at my feet. Despite it being a searing summer day, they wore pants under their dresses. They all eyed me as if I were an alien who’d landed my flying saucer in their living room. 

As the children listened in, I talked to their parents, until one girl, a little blond bundle of perhaps five, stood. She sidled up next to me, then ran a soft hand over my bare arm, again and again. A few of the other youngsters joined her, touching my arms as well, and I looked at the first girl’s mother, questioning. 

“She’s never seen a grown woman’s arms uncovered before,” the woman explained. “We believe short sleeves aren’t modest, so we keep our limbs covered.” 

I’d been in Hildale, Utah, for a few days at that point, and I would end up staying a week, working on a magazine article. The subject was an adoption. The family I’d dropped in on was attempting to adopt six children. What made the case newsworthy was that they were polygamists, a husband and two wives. 

That dusty mountain town felt like the edge of the world. It was one of a handful of such fundamentalist Mormon towns where residents lived by “The Divine Principle,” or plural marriage. Along with the children, those in the room included their father, Vaughn Fischer, and his two surviving wives. Over the course of my time in Hildale, I interviewed dozens of townsfolk, some who crowed about the joy they found in their lifestyles, and others who described oppression at the hands of the sect’s prophet and the peril of living in a town where every aspect of life was overseen and judged by those in power. 

That experience imprinted on me, and I never forgot it. 

It’s not unusual for writers to draw from past experiences when writing fiction. In my case, I spent twenty-some years as a crime writer working for magazines. That career took me inside prison walls, to death row, into the homes of victims’ and killers’ families, into morgues, crime labs, and detective bureaus. I’ve sat through more trials than I care to remember.

In 2008, I centered my first series on a fictional Texas Ranger, Sarah Armstrong. Why? Because I’ve known rangers. I count some as friends. When I decided to write a second series, what came to mind was that eerie week in Hildale, and the folks I met there. What a great setting, I decided. Although it was in the center of the U.S., it was truly a world set apart. 

That was the beginning of the Clara Jefferies mystery series. 

My main character, Clara, is an apostate, who’s fled the fictional mountain town of Alber, moved to Dallas, and become a detective. In the first book, The Fallen Girls, she returns reluctantly, for only one reason: to find a missing sister. 

The story, of course, isn’t real, or are any of the characters, but there was much I remembered from that week in Hildale that provided fodder. For instance, townsfolk had told me about the close relationship between local police and those in power within the sect. The prophet and those in the church hierarchy, they said, called all the shots, and few dared to cross them. 

From this rich soil, I pulled smaller details, like the stilted way the inhabitants spoke, as if they belonged to a long-past era. The subtle and sometimes not so subtle realities of such a world, where one man could have many wives and woman had little control, not even being allowed to choose who they would marry. 

Since I made that decision and birthed Alber as the setting, the time has flown. The Fallen Girls came out in June 2020, followed by Her Final Prayer last October. The reviews have been amazing, and I get so many emails from folks who say they’re as fascinated by my fictional world as I was so long ago on my trip into the mountains. Book three, The Blessed Bones, debuted in March 2021. 

I’m not surprised that readers find Alber interesting. There are, after all, places and experiences that stay with us throughout our lives. Ones that imprint and refuse to leave. 

For me, one such place is that town in Utah. I close my eyes, and I feel the blistering summer sun beating down on my back, smell the red dust clouding around my shoes as I walk, feel the touch of that young girl’s hand skimming my bare arm, and I remember the curve of her smile as she looked at me in wonder. 

Kathryn Casey | 
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Unknown said...

Trying to figure out which of my nieces that would have been, Janelle or Deanne, or one of Vaughn's other young children. Love reading the books you have written based on your time in Hildale. Janet Johanson

Donna S said...

I found this post very interesting mainly because I grew up in an area of Ontario where the Amish and Mennonite people proliferate. While not nearly as intolerant as the sect mentioned in the post, there are similarities. I have relatives in the Mennonites and am so glad they do not practice polygamy!!!!