Ardyth Kennelly had five novels published between 1949 and 1956. Four of these were based largely on stories she heard from her mother about life and polygamy in Utah during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her other book from that time, The Spur, dealt with the final days of John Wilkes Booth. Her last novel, Variation West, was written between about 1977 and 1994 and has only recently been published, by Sunnycroft Books.
Ardyth Kennelly’s writings
The Peaceable Kingdom
Houghton Mifflin, 1949
Literary Guild selection for December 1949
The story of Linnea Ecklund, based on the life of Kennelly’s maternal grandmother, Anna Matilda Johnson Olsen, the second wife in polygamy of Emil Oscar Olsen. This most popular of Kennelly's books was reissued by Houghton Mifflin in 1981 in a combined edition with Good Morning, Young Lady. (The University of Oregon Press planned a new edition of The Peaceable Kingdom in 2003, but it was never actually published.) For more about the book, see below.
Julian Messner, 1951
A fictionalized but scrupulously researched and historically accurate account of the
last days of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. A television adaptation of the book was aired on the Philco Television Playhouse in September 1951; and Kennelly’s moving account of Lincoln’s death was included in the 1953 anthology Abe Lincoln, edited by Hilah Paulmier.
The Spur is now in the public domain and can be read online here.
Good Morning, Young Lady
Houghton Mifflin, 1953
Literary Guild selection for May 1953
The story of Dorney Leaf, who grows up in Salt Lake City under difficult circumstances, longing to meet the outlaw Butch Cassidy but finding also a love of learning.
Houghton Mifflin, 1955
The life of Linnea Ecklund is continued, with many new characters and stories.
Marry Me, Carry Me
Houghton Mifflin, 1956
The story of newlyweds Alitta and Jack Castle and their friends and neighbors during early mining days in Park City, Utah, and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The novel is loosely based on the first years of the marriage of Kennelly’s parents.
Sunnycroft Books, 2014
Ardyth Kennelly’s brilliant last novel spans four generations of a family in Mormon Utah, from the 1860s to the 1960s. Two fictional daughters of John D. Lee, who was notorious for leading the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre, and their descendants experience the changing eras of Western life and history. The book is a colorful procession of comic and tragic stories—of domestic life under Mormon polygamy, historical events and personages, and superbly drawn characters. On a deeper level, the author illustrates the continuity of time and life, the effects of fanaticism, and the destructive power of social ideals of female beauty.
The title is too naughty to print. It is the same as the title of the unchaste picture in the oval frame behind the innocent little nipper on the piano stool.
(1ʹ10ʺ high by 1ʹ9ʺ wide)
About indecent exposure on Broadway & Jefferson. He flashes. Obscene clouds pile up. The first and finest peripteral Doric temple splits at the seams. Children squawk and run. The axes of the vision of the eyes of beautiful women light on different objects. Produce bloats like the drowned. Roses turn blue. Jim Morrison in Paris sinks and dies. Black holes open. Immediate filth jumps out of the sugar bowl into the midgets’ fire. Ignite the missile! He comes in through the window onto the furniture, crash, bang, the last movement of the instrumental composition.
Ardyth Kennelly writes with a wealth of details and with mesmerizing enchantment. As Vladimir Nabokov said:
“In high art and pure science, detail is everything.”
“The longer I live the more I become convinced that the only thing that matters in literature is the . . . shamanstvo of a book, i.e., that the good writer is first of all an enchanter.”
ARDYTH WROTE a number of other novels and plays in the 1960s and 1970s, including Thataway, In Nevada, The Queen of Utah, and Millionaire Housekeeping, as well as a history of dieting and probably other works as well. Unfortunately, she eventually destroyed all these manuscripts. Late in life, she wrote an outline of a darkly comic play called Last Rites for Barbie, but apparently it remained just an outline. (Last Rites for Barbie was also the name of a huge collage she created in the 1990s.) Also remaining to us are a book-length “History of the World”; a few stories and sketches; some poetry written in her youth; some pages from her commonplace book; and two memoirs, which are being prepared for publication.
Ardyth’s maternal grandparents, mother, aunts, and uncle served as models for the fictional family of her first book, The Peaceable Kingdom, according to her letters and other sources. (See some photos here.) Her cousin William Scott Fisher noted in his 1989 book The History of Our Olsen Family Ancestors,
“Ardyth generously shared with me many of the stories she had learned from
her mother about life in the polygamous Olsen family just before and after the turn of the century. And while the records proved some of the stories [in
The Peaceable Kingdom] to be more fable than fact, most developed into fascinating true accounts, with more detail than had previously been known.”
In her letters, Ardyth mentioned holding “story conferences” with her mother, Lulu “Lula” Olsen Kennelly, and wrote to her (probably sometime in early 1948): “I’m going to end this particular volume with your twelfth year and not go through to your marriage as I had planned at first. The next volume picks up where this one leaves off and goes through to my birth. Then there will be 2 more. Four volumes in all to the saga.” As it turned out, Ardyth wrote only three books based on her mother's life, none of them including her own birth.
In letters written in the 1950s to one of her readers, Mary Brown, Ardyth confirms that Gertrude (Linnea’s second-oldest child in The Peaceable Kingdom) “was—and is—my mother” and that “Linnea lived until 1934”—referring to Kennelly’s grandmother, Anna Matilda Johnson Olsen, who indeed died in 1934. She also wrote in 1963 of “Linnea’s kids”: “Bertha is 83, Gertrude 81, Stellie 79,” while Rudie was 77. These ages correspond to Ardyth’s mother, Lula, and the three of Lula’s siblings who were closest in age to her.
Page last revised March 26, 2019