Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

Williams, Terry Tempest

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

  • Date of entry: Jan-28-1997


Terry Tempest Williams, a thirty-four year old Mormon woman and naturalist based in Salt Lake City, Utah, considers herself part of "The Clan of One-Breasted Women." Ten women of her family, including Williams, have been treated or have died from breast cancer. Is this just an example of the randomness of nature, or is it related to the fact that Williams and her family were residing in the "virtually uninhabited" plains downwind of the atomic bomb testing grounds from 1951 to 1962?

When her book begins, Williams' mother has just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and the book follows the next five years of her life and death. At the same time, the Great Salt Lake is rising to record heights, flooding the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and scattering the birds and animals with whom Williams has lived her life. The interplay of the uncontrollable elements of nature and the inevitability of life and death make this book an elegant study of "renewal and spiritual grace," and an excellent and unusual telling of a daughter learning how to grieve for her mother.


With it's beautiful and poetic, yet clear and readable language, this book stands out as one of the best of the illness narratives. The contrast of nature acting on the Great Salt Lake, as detailed by maps and water measurements throughout the book, against the natural--or unnatural--cycle and death of Williams' mother and grandmother is set to add to each story.


Random House: Vintage

Place Published

New York