Book Review: Daredevils, Shawn Vestal (2016)

April 11th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato


five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and child abuse.)

At the heart of this exciting debut novel, set in Arizona and Idaho in the mid-1970s, is fifteen-year-old Loretta, who slips out of her bedroom every evening to meet her so-called gentile boyfriend. Her strict Mormon parents catch her returning one night, and promptly marry her off to Dean Harder, a devout yet materialistic fundamentalist who already has a wife and a brood of kids. The Harders relocate to his native Idaho, where Dean’s teenage nephew Jason falls hard for Loretta. A Zeppelin and Tolkien fan, Jason worships Evel Knievel and longs to leave his close-minded community. He and Loretta make a break for it. They drive all night, stay in hotels, and relish their dizzying burst of teenage freedom as they seek to recover Dean’s cache of “Mormon gold.” But someone Loretta left behind is on their trail…

A riveting story of desire and escape, Daredevils boasts memorable set pieces and a rich cast of secondary characters. There’s Dean’s other wife, Ruth, who as a child in the 1950s was separated from her parents during the notorious Short Creek raid, when federal agents descended on a Mormon fundamentalist community. There’s Jason’s best friend, Boyd, part Native American and caught up in the activist spirit of the time, who comes along for the ride, with disastrous results. And Vestal’s ultimate creation is a superbly sleazy chatterbox—a man who might or might not be Evel Knievel himself—who works his charms on Loretta at a casino in Elko, Nevada.

A lifelong journalist whose Spokesman column is a fixture in Spokane, WA, Shawn has honed his fiction over many years, publishing in journals like McSweeney’s and Tin House. His stunning first collection, Godforsaken Idaho, burrowed into history as it engaged with masculinity and crime, faith and apostasy, and the West that he knows so well. Daredevils shows what he can do on a broader canvas–a fascinating, wide-angle portrait of a time and place that’s both a classic coming of age tale and a plunge into the myths of America, sacred and profane.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

She thinks of the thick dowel that had been lodged against the sliding window in her bedroom. Dean had cut the wood to size, and climbed a ladder to her second-story window and put it there, so even on the hottest days she cannot slide it open. She thinks of the gold. A bag of gold like in a fairy tale. She thinks of taking that gold away from him, and keeping it for herself.

Loretta will never call Ruth “Sister,” but she sees in her the way to do this: be stronger than the thing against you.

This thing Loretta thought would be impossible has turned out to be simple, just as living this life has turned out to be simple. She remembers wondering how she would hide her true self from them, and then discovering how easy it was, because no one ever asked her anything about herself.

It’s difficult for me to oversell this book. Daredevils is everything I’d hoped for – and more: a coming of age story, a cult escape story, a feminist fable. A portrait of the American Southwest in the far out 1970s. A story about the making – and unmaking – of our cultural heroes and icons. A road trip. A deconstruction of toxic masculinity and rape culture. A love story (but not in the way you think).

At its core is a fifteen-year-old girl named Loretta who yearns to start her life in the “real,” outside world. A world she tasted, all too briefly. The youngest of eight children, Loretta’s birth was unexpected. She came into the world a “wordly” Mormon in Cedar City, Arizona; but at the age of eight, her father abruptly decided that he wanted to rejoin the fundamentalist Mormon community in which he was raised. And so he moved Loretta and her mother back to Sutter Creek – without their input, natch. Just that like, Loretta’s world – and her future – narrowed. Constricted until it fit one person’s – another person’s – will and desires.

Loretta is a means to an end for her father: an inroad to the “pocket of polygamists” he drifted away from so long ago. Though he cannot practice the virtue of celestial marriage himself (his standing in the community isn’t enough to merit a second wife, or so I assume), Mr. Buckton can ensure that Loretta becomes a sister wife – whether she likes it or not. When he catches Loretta sneaking out to meet a guy one night, he beats Loretta, imprisons her in her room (bolting shut both the door and window), and “places” her with Dean Harder – who already has one wife and seven children, the oldest of which is only a few years younger than Loretta herself.

Reading Daredevils, I was constantly reminded of Joshua Gaylord’s When We Were Animals: not because of any similarities in substance or style, but for the simple fact that both men give voice to teenage girls with such compassion, clarity, and nuance. Such humanity. At the time, I wrote:

Every male author who laments that women are too strange and unknowable – too alien – to write convincingly needs to read When We Were Animals. Like yesterday. This is how it’s done, people.

The same goes for Daredevils. While all the characters are multifaceted, Loretta in particular shines. It would be all too easy to make her into a victim. And while she is indeed victimized – by her birth father; by her new “Father,” husband/rapist Dean; and by the equally dangerous Bradshaw – she’s also a survivor. Loretta suffers the abuse because she must, but she also finds ways to transcend it: through plotting and scheming; taking control of her body when she can (e.g., she douches with vinegar and ammonia to prevent pregnancy); and holding her secrets, pieces of her, close. Loretta is manipulative and sly, and I love her for it.

Loretta’s unusual upbringing also makes it all too easy to relate to her. Hers is in many ways a classic fish out of water tale: She wasn’t raised into this lifestyle, but rather thrust into it as a child; and at an old enough age to remember a different way. A better way – for girls and women and expendable adolescent boys.

While the first half of the story primarily focuses on Loretta and Jason and their converging paths, once the trio hits the road, we’re treated to brief passages from the other characters’ POVs. This is pure genius on Vestal’s part; these sections promise to either cement or challenge the reader’s existing perceptions.

This is especially true in Ruth’s case: where she alternately comes off as a bully or a victim, the glimpse into her past (she was eleven when she was separated from her parents during the Short Creek raid – a real event that’s described as “the largest mass arrest of polygamists in American history”) really helps to add depth and nuance to the character. She is both: Ruth beats her children, and Dean took Loretta as a second wife against Ruth’s wishes – even though the Law of Sarah grants wives the right to refuse sister wives. Sometimes Ruth despises her religion, even as she clings to it. She knows that she’s smarter and has better judgment than her husband – she lacks Dean’s greed and vanity – yet God’s will demands that she submit to him nonetheless. She is, in a sense, her own jailer. And yet the Short Creek raid – and the sense of persecution it imparted – perversely helped cement those bars in place.

Yet Ruth, like Loretta, finds her own small, sly acts of rebellion. After Loretta runs off with Jason and Boyd, Ruth can’t help but get a little dig in at Dean’s expense: a godly “I told you so.” Not content with his agreement, she insists that Dean lay out all the ways in which he erred. In great detail. It’s just a happy coincidence that that which pleases God also pleases her, you know?

I also loved the juxtaposition of Bradshaw and Dean: two sides of the same woman-hating coin. Whereas Dean justifies his rape of Loretta with scripture, Bradshaw leans on the same rape apologism we’re all familiar with. Yet when it comes right down to it, they’re more alike than different: a couple of entitled misogynists. Watching the burgeoning friendship between the chosen and the gentile was terribly satisfying. They kind of belong together, those two.

It’s a little simplistic or naive to call Bradshaw Loretta’s “boyfriend” – really he’s just one possible avenue of escape that she’s cultivating. Yet as she becomes familiar with Dean, she questions which man – which path – is really the lesser evil. In the end, she chooses neither: Loretta is the architect of her own future.

For a time, Jason fancies himself Loretta’s knight in shining armor:

She needs saving, and it has been arranged for him to save her, but how? It must be what she wants, too, though this thought is buried so deep in Jason’s assumptions that he doesn’t actually think it. It is simply what occurs, it is simply what men do: rescue women.

But as their escape unfolds, Jason is dismayed to find that he’s not the one behind the wheel. He’s not Spider-Man, and Loretta is no Mary Jane. She’s planned her prison break from the start and doesn’t need anything from Jason – except his pea green LeBaron, that is.

Likewise, once he (and Boyd) get to know Loretta, they find that she’s nothing like the image they conjured in their heads. She’s brash, aggressive, and sexual – nothing like the demure, oppressed sister-wife they expected. (That noise? It’s the sound of your pedestal cracking.)

There’s so much to cherish and celebrate here, I could go on for days. The writing is captivating; the setting, lovely; and the characters, stunning and complicated and oh so human. I seriously had trouble pulling myself away, even as my heart quailed at what might come next.

My only quibble is with the ending, which isn’t unsatisfying or disappointing, exactly … it’s just not quite what I expected. I don’t know what I expected. Something grander? More profound? A twist to make me gasp or that would leave me in tears? I wanted Loretta to walk away with all of the fool’s gold, anyway.

Don’t get me wrong; the ending is good. I just think it could have been awesome.

4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 where necessary.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: The MC is a fifteen-year-old girl named Loretta, whose family belongs to a fundamentalist Mormon community in Sutter Creek, Arizona. When her father discovers her sneaking out one night, he beats Loretta, imprisons her in her room (door locked, window nailed shut), and marries her off to Dean Harder, who already has a wife and seven children – the oldest of which is just a few years younger than Loretta. Loretta is raped several times a week starting when she’s sixteen. Her “boyfriend” Bradshaw – the guy she was sneaking out to meet – also pressures her for sex, though she’s able to deflect his advances (for a time, anyway). We later learn (based on a brief passage told from his POV) that he’s a serial rapist. Dean and Ruth also physically abuse their children.

Jason – technically Loretta’s nephew-in-law – belongs to the mainstream Mormon church in Idaho. When Dean relocates the family to Idaho after the death of his father, Jason falls hard for Loretta. He fantasizes about rescuing her – because that’s what men do – only to find that she’s not a damsel in need of saving.

Jason’s best friend Boyd is half Native American on his father’s side; his mom thinks he was Shoshone. Boyd has dark skin, hair so black it looks blue in certain light, and wide, dark eyes. He’s also very political; one of my favorite passages is when he rails against Jason’s indifference:

“You know, dumbass,” he says. “Everybody thinks the problem, the race thing, is the guy who hollers some shitty thing, calls you an Injun, burns a cross, whatever.” “That guy’s not the problem?” “That guy is a problem. But the problem is guys like you. The problem is guys who want to tell you there’s no problem. Guys who want to tell you to just calm down.”

Boyd’s mother is an alcoholic.

Animal-friendly elements: Not so much. Jason’s family owns a dairy farm, and he resents the time he has to spend on farm-related chores – which includes laying out barley laced with strychnine powder, to kill the jackrabbits who are digging up the fields and eating the crops. After Dean Harder and his family move in next door, they organize a rabbit drive/bunny bash that becomes a point of contention in both the family and the community. Jason’s family thinks of its as cruelty for cruelty’s sake and resents the spectacle it’s sure to cause: they don’t want to be thought of as backwards hillbillies. Animal rights protesters organize across the street, while farmers write favorable op eds in the paper and local boys and men show up en masse for the free food and bloodsport. The event is revisited multiple times in the narrative; it becomes a sort of touchstone for the different perspectives and personalities of the various characters.

“Rabbit murder,” Jason says now as he hefts the final sack onto the trailer. “Raise this stupid animal, kill that stupid animal, milk the other stupid animal, poison this stupid animal.”

Loretta and Boyd argue about the bunny bash. Loretta hated it—the blood, the violence, the brutality, the sport of it—and Boyd defends it, says they’re just rodents and need to be killed, and it’s no better to leave out poison and sneak away than it is to stand there and take care of it with your own hands. “It is different,” Loretta insists. “If you poison them, you’re not doing it because you enjoy it. There’s something wrong with enjoying that much death and blood. It’s creepy.”


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