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Shawn Vestal, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize-winning author of the short story collection GODFORSAKEN IDAHO, once again discovers life in the bleakness of the American Midwest with his novel DAREDEVILS. The book begins in the summer of 1974 in Short Creek, Arizona, where 15-year-old Loretta rebels against her fundamentalist Mormon community by sneaking out at night with her Gentile boyfriend, Bradshaw. She is tired of Bradshaw and his pressuring her to sleep with him, but continues to see him because she views him as a potential means of escape.

However, by the time we meet Loretta, she is already beginning to come into her own and imagines a future where she will not need to rely on a man for autonomy. This dream is unfortunately deferred when her father catches her slipping back through her bedroom window after a night out and forces her to marry the despicable Dean Harder, a rigid fundamentalist and, conversely, an ambitious farmer-capitalist. Loretta becomes a sister wife and endures night after night of “marital” rape after she turns 16 (I put quotations around the word “marital” because polygamy is not legal in the United States and is not recognized by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as valid, though it is still practiced in some small, extremist communities). Eventually, after a death in Dean’s family, he moves his Short Creek clan up to Idaho so he can claim the property he views as rightfully his.

"Vestal hits his stride during the novel’s climax and closing, treating the reader to rich descriptions of Loretta by Jason, Boyd and Bradshaw, and, most importantly, from her own perspective, which makes her character arc hit home."

Violation is one of the most poignant themes in DAREDEVILS. In nearly every encounter Loretta has with another person, who is almost always a man, the other person attempts to use her body and/or block her from self-determination. To Vestal’s credit, this othering of his heroine never comes across as stereotypical. While Loretta is not quite as well-written as the male protagonist, Jason, or Jason’s friend Boyd, the author extensively explores her inner complexities. The result is that she comes off the page as flesh and blood. Vestal hits his stride during the novel’s climax and closing, treating the reader to rich descriptions of Loretta by Jason, Boyd and Bradshaw, and, most importantly, from her own perspective, which makes her character arc hit home. However, the theme of violation doesn’t end here. It takes on many forms in DAREDEVILS as Vestal weaves this narrative through depictions of religious practices, coming-of-age angst, and what it means to work on, inherit and pass through land.

There is, of course, so much more to this novel than the beginning and end, which I’ve focused on up until now. We now need to look at Jason Harder and Evel Knievel, the book’s two other strongest voices. Jason is Dean’s teenage nephew. He lives on a farm in Gooding, Idaho and, like Loretta, dreams of a life more libertine than that which is upheld by his Mormon family. Unlike Loretta, he is a boy from the mainstream church and as such enjoys privileges like going to the town school and listening to rock music (although his parents disapprove), and his family is quietly ashamed of their fundamentalist relatives. Jason also idolizes Evel Knievel, the real-life stuntman, whom he watches fail at his infamous Snake River Canyon jump and later meets at an Elko casino.

Apart from the scene in Nevada, Evel is strictly confined to the “Evel Knievel Addresses an Adoring Nation” sections, fictional monologues that are staggered between every few chapters. These speeches, which are best characterized as half-soliloquy, half-rant, allow Vestal to make grandiose statements about imaginings of America. Evel’s impassioned use of language takes some getting used to, but as with much of DAREDEVILS, his sections become more enjoyable to read and deeper in context as the novel progresses until, finally, Jason, Boyd and Loretta experience a defining night of debauchery with Evel at a hotel casino in Elko.

At this point, Jason has fallen in love with Loretta, and Boyd is also smitten. To save Loretta from her polygamous marriage to Dean, the three run away from Gooding together. Or at least, saving the girl is Jason’s official reason, but Vestal leaves his characters with enough doubt to demonstrate that the boys’ great escape is more than just an attempt at chivalry and that, in fact, it is decidedly chauvinistic, if subconsciously so. At the end of the novel, this dynamic and the events of the night with Evel lead to a battle in Short Creek between Bradshaw and the teens, after which Vestal leaves the reader with a rare gift: an inconclusive ending that is utterly satisfying.

Reviewed by Alex Bowditch on May 6, 2016

by Shawn Vestal

  • Publication Date: April 11, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1101979909
  • ISBN-13: 9781101979907