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In debut novel, author Shawn Vestal dares to challenge traditions

Spokane author Shawn Vestal's debut novel, "Daredevils,' is released from Penguin Press on Tuesday. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane author Shawn Vestal's debut novel, "Daredevils,' is released from Penguin Press on Tuesday. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

There is something completely romantic about the notion of young lovers running away together.

The cover of Shawn Vestal’s new novel, “Daredevils,” gives the impression that the story contained within is that kind of tale. Blue sky, sunshine, fields and a long-haired girl with her head out an open window as the car she’s riding in barrels down a country road. It’s the stuff of romantic ideal.

But Vestal’s novel – his first, and a follow-up to the 2013 award-winning story collection, “Godforsaken Idaho” – plays with that and other traditions.

The story, set the mid-1970s, centers on Loretta, who lives in Short Creek, a fundamentalist Mormon community on the border of Arizona and Utah. When her parents discover she’s been sneaking around with her gentile boyfriend, they arrange for her to marry Dean Harder and become sister-wife to Ruth, the mother of Dean’s seven children. She is 15 years old.

Then there’s Jason, a mainstream Mormon kid, and Dean’s nephew, living in Gooding, Idaho. When he meets Loretta, he becomes convinced she needs rescuing. It’s something his idol, Evel Knievel, would do, he reasons.

But because Vestal is playing with those traditions – romantic, patrician, religious, patriotic, familial – nothing really is as its seems.

“The idea that (Jason) is going to rescue somebody, to me that’s an idea that you grow up with as a boy,” Vestal said. “Because the whole world tells you stories of men rescuing women.”

Some of the early chapters first came into being eight years ago, but Vestal really started working on it in earnest roughly five years ago. Winning the PEN/Robert W. Bingham award for “Godforsaken Idaho,” which came with a $25,000 prize, allowed him to take some time off from work to polish “Daredevils” for publication.

An early version of the novel was told from Jason’s viewpoint. But people would read it, Vestal said, and ask, “Well, what about Loretta?”

“The message was, she’s the most interesting character, why aren’t you writing about her?” he said. “Being a teenager in Idaho, a boy, is something I can access pretty easily. But this other stuff is a little more daunting.”

In revising the novel, the women, Loretta and Ruth, became much more expanded. “Daredevils” presents an interesting dynamic in their relationship. Ruth is very devout, but she’s also smart. She may submit to her husband, as her faith dictates, but she’s not submissive. Loretta is young, and has dreams of life in the wider world, of pretty lipsticks and Mustang convertibles. She has no interest in bearing child after child and living her constricted life.

“I began to fight through my nervousness about writing women, writing women in polygamy – that’s a double-whammy in terms of what I don’t know,” he said. “Ruth, in particular, was just an unpleasant person in the early draft. … I wanted to grow her a bit and imagine myself into her life. What does a person who is strong-willed, how does she manage in her own mind the submission required of her position?”

Ultimately, Vestal said Ruth believes she is doing her duty, “even if she doesn’t have full faith in her husband. To submit to him is her duty, and she has to choke it down. I came to think it was a sign of her strength.”

His own Mormon upbringing in southern Idaho didn’t give him any direct exposure to the polygamist world. “I grew up, as most mainstream Mormon kids grow up, basically being told to ignore it, that it is not who we are,” he said, “in a way that has nettled me a bit as an ex-Mormon. I feel like it’s in there, it’s woven in more strongly than we’re taught.”

While Ruth is presented as a character of depth – Vestal revisits her childhood in Short Creek, when federal agents famously raided the community and took children from their polygamist families, and how that experience essentially radicalized her – “Daredevils” is really Loretta’s story. And perhaps she does need saving, but that salvation won’t come at the hands of a teenage boy, her husband, her boyfriend or even a certain international daredevil.

Because no one really wants to rescue her. They want to control her.

“I thought, it’s just another way in which everybody around her wants to sort of own her in some way,” Vestal said. “There’s no safe place for her, really. There’s no place where someone says, ‘You come here, and I’m going to value you for who you are and you can do what you want to do.’ Everybody wants to put her into their life.”

Knievel’s role in “Daredevils” is two-fold. He’s featured in a series of first-person vignettes sprinkled throughout the book, all titled “Evel Knievel Addresses an Adoring Nation.” Then he appears in the flesh. So to speak.

Like many people who lived through the 1970s, Vestal has a healthy interest in Knievel. The days, he’s interested in Knievel’s persona as a literary device.

“He combines a lot of the things I’m interested in in fiction, in a kind of a handy package,” he said, laughing. “In a way he’s so emblematic of America, an American contradiction. That’s what I love about him. … He was courageous, but courageous in pursuit of what? He also would say patriotic, religious, pro-social things all the time, but he was an incredibly vain, ego-driven consumer of people and everything. Just an incredible ego.”

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