“I couldn’t lay the book down” is usually said of a Dorothy Sayers mystery or a John LeCarre novel. But Levi Peterson’s recent biography Juanita Brooks: Mormon Woman Historian held me in just such a grip. It may be that having known Juanita, having read most of her books, having traveled around Dixie with her, and having lived in her “U” Street house, guaranteed my enthusiasm for her story. But I have struggled through competent biographies of other people I have known and respected and been left with no more memory than the flavor of blancmange. Peterson’s book, in contrast, tasted good from first to last, and left me hungering for more. It is, in Thoreau’s model, “a simple and sincere account” of one person’s life, differing from Thoreau’s ideal only in that it was not Juanita herself who wrote it.
One might accurately label this “one-damn-thing-after-another” biography, a narration that follows detail after chronological detail. Yet it works. The composite effect of 423 pages of Juanita Brooks’s life, told in the gentle, controlled prose of a master stylist, is awesome. Day by well-filled day, Peterson recreates for us the life of this many-faceted woman, the details building one upon another, the common and the uncommon mingling in a tapestry of rich but well-aged colors.