Irvine, Amy. Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land. New York: North Point Press, 2008. 384 pp. Reviewed by Nadia van der Watt. Amy Irvine’s book Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land is described as a nature-memoir on the back cover. Indeed, Irvine has an intense passion for the land shows herself to be more than just a casual visitor and observer of its beauties. This becomes especially clear in a defining moment when she makes a last minute decision to move to one of Utah’s most beautiful, yet most unforgiving areas, San Juan County, where a rugged form of cowboy-Mormonism seems to be threatening the land she loves. It is here that Irvine will first lose, and then rediscover herself.
The book itself begins with a most riveting sentence that provides a first insight into the overall focus of the narrative. Irvine states, “My home is a red desert that trembles with spirits and bones” (3). The beginning of a piece of literature almost always sets the stage for the following chapters, and nowhere is this more true than in Irvine’s book. The book revolves around the various meanings of bones—and their excavation—as well as of other artifacts from the earth. But for Irvine the experience in San Juan County itself becomes a figurative excavation of her own past as she uncovers the layers of herself and what has driven her away from almost everyone in her life. Irvine explains a technique of excavating artifacts first employed Richard Wetherill called “stratigraphy” (205). When employing stratigraphy in removing ancient artifacts from the earth (such as Native-American pottery shards and arrow heads), one removes pieces of history in layers. As each layer is removed, it is considered to tell not only its own history but also to help archaeologists understand the history of the layers underneath and on top of it. Irvine perceives this tactic of excavation as analogous to her own journey of self-discovery. This journey is by no means easy: Just as almost any type of excavation of historical pieces disturbs the underlying layers of earth and history—with at times catastrophic results to fragile artifacts—so does Irvine’s layer-by-layer “removal” of her own hardened shell cause much personal pain. Many of Irvine’s experiences throughout childhood and adulthood are harrowing, for author and reader alike. However, the one thing that remains constant is Irvine’s connection to the land and the peaceful moments it brings in her tumultuous life. Though dealing with the past, the book is essentially about life: Trespass comes alive thanks to Irvine’s power with words, especially the emotionally charged language she uses to relate her story. The overall organization of her book also masterfully transitions between bits of history and the author’s experiences. Utah locals have welcomed Irvine’s book with curiosity and interest, for it forces readers, especially Utah natives, to think about their own lives and behavior: Not only does the narrative cause the author pain as she digs through the layers of her being, but it also causes the readers pain as they, along with Irvine, look inward at themselves and engage in a similar journey of self-discovery. Regardless, the moments of deep introspection rendered within these pages will be well worth any effort—because understanding the past helps in creating a future.