Sunday , July 06, 2014 - 12:00 AM
This month Signature Books is releasing a novel, “The Thieves of Summer,” drafted by Linda Sillitoe just before her death in 2010. Sillitoe is best known for co-authoring the non-fiction crime book “Salamander: The Mormon Forgery Murders,” but also wrote novels, short stories, essays and poetry. In “Thieves of Summer,” Sillitoe combines several of her passions -- crime reporting, elephants, family, Mormonism and the culture of old Salt Lake City -- to craft a cluttered, but nevertheless entertaining summer story.
It’s 1938, and in Salt Lake City’s Liberty Park area the Flynn family is surviving the Depression as best it can. Dad Evan is a police detective, consumed with a case of missing children. His wife, Rose, stays at home and with dad raises Glenn, a new adult, troubled teen Joyce and three 11-year-old triplets, Annabelle, Bethany and Carolee. Nearby lives Princess Alice, a very independent elephant that is the main attraction at the Liberty Park zoo.
Sillitoe has tossed a lot of ingredients into her novel’s conflict broth, and at times the reader will wonder what exactly is the main plot of “Thieves of Summer.” It probably fits into the genre of crime fiction, but there are long interludes in which the case of the missing children, and the thoroughly evil pedophile antagonist, disappear from the novel. Also, the elephant Princess Alice, tagged pretty early as a major character in the novel, makes cameo appearances until the novel approaches its climax.
Perhaps a better title would have been “The Family Flynn” because they are the real focus of the novel, particularly the parents and the two oldest siblings. The family’s challenges, which include Glenn getting his girlfriend, Margie, in a family way, as well as emotionally maladjusted Joyce being caught stealing at work and trying to harm her new sister in law, are detailed from both secular and religious consequences. Sillitoe makes it clear that for an active Mormon family in 1938 Salt Lake City, every crisis includes a reaction from the dominant church. In one episode, in which an aunt dies of complications from mumps and pertussis, Sillitoe captures the culture well in the manner the family hustles away Glenn from the quarantined home due to the potential threat to his child-bearing future. The not-always-subtle discrimination against woman is captured in how some ecclesiastical leaders handle Glenn and Margie’s pregnancy.
The author captures the period piece of Depression-era Utah well, particularly in a family outing to Saltair, trips on the old public transportation system, horse-riding in the city, and an era of medicine that relied as much on hope as medical expertise. I particularly enjoyed the innocence of the conversations of the triplets regarding the crisis of Glenn, Margie, Joyce and even the stolen children. They are in that small pocket of life where they know something is amiss but are not actually sure what is amiss. Their ruminations comprise excellent writing.
The climax of the novel, which is the resolution of the criminal case, is easy to predict but nevertheless clever and the writing is very strong. As mentioned, the pedophile criminal is extremely evil and sociopathic. Spending several pages in his head leaves readers wondering if they need to take a shower. Sillitoe has the talent to effectively convey the emotions and thoughts of children and adults. The Flynn father, Evan, is an extremely fair-minded, patient man, and Cynthia Sillitoe, Linda Sillitoe’s daughter and an Ogden resident, notes in the novel’s forward how easy it is to see Evan in her grandfather.
After the novel’s conclusion, there are several actual newspaper articles, as well as a photo of the real Princess Alice elephant, which lived in Salt Lake City and was an attraction at the Liberty Park zoo between 1916 and 1918.
I’m not sure that “The Thieves of Summer” will move beyond regional fiction. It’s a quirky mix of family tension, crime drama and an homage to an elephant, but the writing is superb and Sillitoe has produced a tale that captures interest and provides entertainment. It deserves to sell a lot of copies.
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