The Chinchilla Farm, 1989
Set for Life, 1991
A Desert of Pure Feeling, 1996
Red Water, 2002
Family Attractions, 1988
The Patanias: A Legacy in Silver and Gold, 1999 (museum catalog; with Joanne Stuhr)
Judith Ann Freeman launched her career with the short-story collection Family Attractions and then settled into writing novels. She is a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and the Western Heritage Award for Best Novel for Set for Life. The daughter of devout Mormons Alice Paul Freeman and LeRoy Freeman, Judith was raised in a family of eight children in Ogden, Utah. She married at seventeen, had a son by eighteen, and was divorced at twenty-one. After raising her son, Todd, she devoted herself to writing. In 1986 Freeman married photographer Anthony Hernandez. They would live in California and travel the western United States, the deserts, mountains, and coasts providing breathtaking settings for her fiction.
Freeman is a self-taught writer, having learned to write by reading novels she liked. She does not write outlines but lets the story go where it wants. Her fiction juxtaposes the inner search for oneself, for one’s place and purpose in the universe, with the inspiration of dynamic, open western landscapes. Her characters are middle class but often out of the mainstream, down-to-earth types and underdogs who, by the end of the story, have found themselves.
Freeman is given to detail, closely recording daily life but in the process quietly getting under the common occurrences to the struggles. Her characters come across the page as lonely but honest souls. Through a calm, “soft-sell” storytelling tone and crisp, even mundane (but believable) dialogue, Freeman’s characters befriend someone as needy as themselves. In her first novel, The Chinchilla Farm, Verna Fields flees Utah, having been abandoned by her abusive Mormon husband. En route to Los Angeles, she picks up a hitchhiker, Duluth Wing, and together they travel through the West to Mexico. Vera finds strength in herself, and they develop a fulfilling relationship.
A subtheme running through Freeman’s writings is the meaning and definition of family. In Set for Life, a sixteen-year-old pregnant runaway comes to live with Phil, a survivor of a heart transplant. They help each other and form a father-daughter relationship, which occasionally borders on the oedipal. Lucy, in A Desert of Pure Feeling, like Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), must deal with a painful past. Initially planning a healing trip alone, she lands in a hotel on the outskirts of Las Vegas and reluctantly befriends a prostitute. Together, this pair of opposites finds a figurative oasis.
In “Death of an Elder,” a short story about a Mexican couple adapting to farm life in a Mormon community, Freeman questions religion. Is one religion necessarily the holder of absolute truth, or are there truths common to all religions? The surprise ending in “Death of an Elder” resembles O. Henry’s in “The Gift of the Magi” (1905). After the husband’s brush with death and through a string of coincidental events, his wife converts finally and wholly to Mormonism, as her Mormon husband had so wanted, but ironically he returns to Catholicism.
What makes up a family, and who should care for children, are questions about Mormon communities and the settling of the American frontier in general in Red Water. Here Freeman weaves bits of historical fact with fiction as she unfolds the hazy story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the brutal murder of more than one hundred settlers, half of them children, traveling through Utah in 1847. Later, Mormon men attempted to blame the slaughter on Indians. Three wives tell a story of polygamy and the power structure that kept the Mormon religion and its culture functioning and growing in the 1800’s. Red Water begins as John D. Lee, once married to as many as nineteen women and later ostracized and imprisoned, is executed as a leader of the massacre twenty years after its occurrence. His second wife, Rachel, stays true to her husband and the Mormon religion; wives Emma and Ann form a friendship and flee Mormonism but pay a high price for their freedom. Like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), Red Water is told from differing viewpoints. Emma shifts back and forth in present and past in a stream-of-consciousness, first-person narrative. Ann, who gives up her three children and disguises herself as a man, is revealed through a third-person-omniscient viewpoint. Rachel tells her story through diary entries.
Freeman says she is intrigued with an institution holding such influence that its devotees are enabled to commit such heinous acts. Her ancestors were Mormon settlers, establishing their families, their religion, and their way of life in Arizona, Utah, and Idaho in the mid-1800’s. Freeman’s great-grandfather was a friend of John D. Lee, and Freeman recalls a picture of her grandfather in jail for having two wives. She raises feminist issues: that wives, often very young with little or no voice, were given as sexual rewards by church leaders (Ann, one of Lee’s last wives, was married to him at thirteen), and that without birth control or a chance at independence through an education or a career, women were kept “in the family.”
In Freeman’s stories, the settings so parallel the plot that they sometimes function, if not as a character, as a catalyst for the deep journey inward. The powerful color red permeates Red Water–the land is red, both in landscape and at the site of the massacre. Blood has stained the clothes and shoes Lee offers his wives and children, which they later learn are booty from the massacre. If the life is in the blood, Lee’s execution places him as the one sacrificial lamb for the many Mormons, an ironic Christlike figure, offered to preserve Mormonism.
Freeman nudges her readers to examine issues some would rather ignore. Those quiet, inner voices heard against the backdrop of nature speak to her characters and to readers, who, if they listen to them over the screams of daily life, can gain deep insights into the human condition.