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  • Writer's pictureJulie Mackin

Go West Young Woman

Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams

Where we learn its best not to read without a box of Kleenex

Stars: 5/5


When I was in college, I took an ecological literature class, which to be honest, I wasn’t excited about initially but in the end it introduced me to two books that changed my life. One was Surfacing by Margaret Atwood and the other was Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams.



Refuge’s subtitle is “an unnatural history of family and place” and follows Williams’ mother’s struggle with breast cancer at the same time as the Great Salt Lake was rising in and threatening the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. The natural world is impacted by so much of what we as humans have done to it. William’s mother’s cancer was most certainly a byproduct of the nuclear testing that took place in Utah in the 1950s; the legacy that the radiation left on families in the area is profound, eventually William’s mother and grandmother would both die of cancer.


Williams interweavers her memoir with the rising of the Great Salt Lake and the loss of migratory bird populations in the area. The waters did recede and the lake returned to its normal levels, at least for a time. Now, with the ongoing drought in the West, the Great Salt Lake is disappearing. It is currently at its lowest recorded level and there are fears that with more evaporation, the loss of the lake could have a huge impact on the air around Salt Lake City and the snowpack that fuels a large part of Utah’s ski economy.


While I was in the ecological literature class, I was also applying to graduate programs and one of the programs was in a town about an hour north of Salt Lake. Williams’ book so intrigued me, I ultimately decided to go ahead and move almost halfway across the country to study Tudor history at Utah State in Logan (you know as one does, goes West to study about 16th century English people). I visited the Great Salt Lake many times and I love the stark beauty of the land around it. It is a truly unique place.


So, if you are looking for a lyrical memoir of family and place, pick this book up. But make sure you have tissues handy.

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