Much like tumbleweeds, the main characters of Phyllis Barber’s The Desert Between Us have fetched up in St. Thomas because that’s where their lives have blown them. Geoffrey Scott ended up there after leaving his civilian post with the U.S Army; his new plan involves mining salt. Sophia Hughes ended up there because her Mormon husband brought her; he’s following instructions from Brigham Young. St. Thomas is a hardscrabble settlement with not enough water, too many mosquitos, and too much heat but it’s the only place for miles around.
The Desert Between Us is partly inspired by historic events. First, St. Thomas really was a Mormon settlement before the land got reapportioned to the new state of Nevada. Second, the U.S. Camel Corps really existed before being disbanded in 1866. The inspiration is, sadly, minimally used in the novel. It’s really just an excuse to put a cowboy on a camel and have him meet up with a Mormon man’s third wife, who is wrestling with her commitment to being a plural wife.
Even though Geoffrey Scott was riding around Arizona and Utah Territory with a camel and has a relatively interesting backstory, I was much more interested in Sophia. Sophia is a true believer. She believed in her new religion so much that she gave up everything in England to cross an ocean and a continent to join the Mormons in Utah. After her first husband leaves her in Salt Lake, she marries a man with two wives she’s only known for a few weeks. See how much of a true believer she is? But when her marriage takes her to St. Thomas where nothing green grows, with a husband with a short temper, she begins to wonder if what she’s really doing is really what god wants…or if the men who claim to speak for god don’t actually know what they’re doing.
To continue the tumbleweed metaphor, events push Geoffrey Scott (he insists on both names) and Sophia together), where they become entangled, before pushing them apart again. We spend a lot of time these characters’ heads, in lieu of plot. Readers looking for meditative novels about characters doubting their life choices will enjoy this atmospheric novel. Readers who want more action and decisive characters might want to pass on this one.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.