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Top Books By State: Utah

By Adrienne Rivera. May 11, 2024. 11:28 PM.

Topics: Pulitzer Prize, American Literature

Today, we continue our exploration of the United States of America through literature, focusing on the state of Utah. Known for its natural beauty, deserts, skiing, the Sundance Film Festival, and hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics, Utah is a gorgeous state full of opportunities for experiencing art, sport, and nature. Today, we focus on two books whose genres are rooted in fact, though some aspects may be fictionalized. Join us as we take a closer look at two iconic books in their respective genres of true-crime and nature writing in our Top Books by State Series:

The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

ExecutionersSongNorman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning true-crime novel, The Executioner’s Song, focuses on the events surrounding the execution of Gary Gilbert by the state of Utah in the United States first execution in 1977 after the reinstatement of the death penalty after a period of eleven years in which it was outlawed. While Gilbert’s crimes, two murders, took place in Indiana, his incarceration and execution took place in Utah. The book details the events leading up to his crimes, his time in prison, and even the interviewing process for a movie adaptation of a fictionalized Mailer’s own manuscript and its subsequent film adaptation starring Tommy Lee Jones. The book is notable for its’ exploration of Gilbert’s own desire to face execution rather than spend his life in prison, a decision which went unsupported by his attorneys.

When the call came from Shirley Pedler to help in organizing the Utah Coalition Against the Death Penalty, she knew she would go out in the world again with her freaky blond hair, blond to everyone’s disbelief—at the age of fifty-four, go out in her denims and chin-length-hanging-down-straight vanilla hair to that Salt Lake world where nobody would ever make the mistake of thinking she was a native Utah lady since Utah was the Beehive State. The girls went big for vertical hair-dos, pure monuments to shellac.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey

DesertSolitaireIn 1956 and 1957, Edward Abbey worked as a park ranger at Arches National Monument, now Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. Inspired by the beauty of the desert landscape, Abbey published Desert Solitaire. The book is a series of observations, essays, reflections, and details about his love of and experience in the park in the same vein as Henry David Thoreau's iconic Walden. While initially Desert Solitaire didn't make much of a commercial or critical splash, it has since become an excellent example of nature writing, a label that Abbey himself rejected. Interspersed with his complicated feelings regarding modernity are beautiful descriptions of the natural Utah landscape:

Paradise is not a garden of bliss and changeless perfection where the lions lie down like lambs (what would they eat?) and the angels and cherubim and seraphim rotate in endless idiotic circles, like clockwork, about an equally inane and ludicrous -- however roseate -- unmoved mover. That particular painted fantasy of a realm beyond time and space which Aristotle and the church fathers tried to palm off on us has met, in modern times, only neglect and indifference passing on into oblivion it so richly deserved, while the paradise of which I write and wish to praise is with us yet, the the here and now, the actual, tangible, dogmatically real earth on which we stand.


Late in August, the lure of the mountains becomes irresistible. Seared by the everlasting sunfire, I want to see running water again, embrace a pine tree, cut my initials in the bark of aspen, get bit by a mosquito, see a mountain bluebird, find a big blue columbine, get lost in the firs, hike above timberline, sunbathe on snow and eat some ice, climb the rocks and stand in the wind at the top of the world on the peak of Tukuhnikivats.


If a man knew enough, he could write a book about the juniper tree. Not juniper trees in general but one particular juniper tree which grows from a ledge of naked sandstone near the old entrance to Arches National Monument.


Stay tuned! 

Adrienne Rivera
Adrienne Rivera received her MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She currently lives in southern Indiana.


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