From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Editor's Note
Evans Awards

Several members of the David Woolley and Beatrice Cannon Evans family attended the 2014 ceremony that honored winners of the Evans Awards endowed by their ancestors. Attending the Awards banquet were (from left) Sarah Johnson, Nancy Peterson, Lark Galli, winners Todd Compton and Evelyn Funda, Vella Evans, and Wayne Evans.

TRUTH BE TOLD: Evans Awards Celebrate Biography

AS A GENRE, BIOGRAPHY MIGHT SEEM TO BE LIMITING in the most fundamental ways. Given the restrictive scope — one person’s lifetime — and artistic boundaries seemingly set by timeline and detail, it might be natural to view biographies as more function than form.

Yet, each year since 1983, the Evans Biography and Handcart Awards have honored outstanding contributions to this often under-appreciated field proving to even the most fiction loving of skeptics that biographies can be both enlightening and artistic.

The Evans Awards were endowed by the family of David Woolley Evans and Beatrice Cannon Evans. Both David and Beatrice Evans were born in 1894. David was an editor, writer, and eventual owner of one of the largest advertising and public relations firms in the western United States. Beatrice was an historian and family genealogist. Both awards named in their honor celebrate the couple’s legacy of writing and biography.

Winning authors for works published in 2013 are Todd M. Compton for his biographic work A Frontier Life: Jacob Hamblin Explorer and Indian Missionary and Evelyn I. Funda for her autobiographic meditation Weeds: A Farm Daughter’s Lament.

“This year’s winners continue a long tradition of excellence in biographical writing about the people of ‘Mormon Country,’” said Patricia Lambert, director of Utah State University’s Mountain West Center for Regional Studies, which administers these national book awards. “It’s always a difficult decision for our jury, because the stories of individuals and families described in these works are wide-ranging and compelling. In the end it comes down to which volumes represent the finest writing in this genre of American literature.”

Submissions for the Evans Biography Award must focus on individuals who spent a significant part of their lives in the Interior West, also known as “Mormon Country,” the region historically influenced by Mormon institutions and social practices. Neither the biography’s subject nor author need belong to the Mormon faith. Award winners are chosen from biographic works published in the previous year. The prestigious awards carry cash prizes of $10,000 for the Evans Biography Award and $2,500 for the Evans Handcart Award.

Todd Compton

Winner of the Evans Biography Award for a book published in 2013 is Todd Compton (left) for his work A Frontier Life: Jacob Hamblin Explorer and Indian Missionary. Richard Sadler (right), Weber State University professor of history, presented Compton his award, which included a plaque and prize of $10,000.

LIFE ON THE FRONTIER

An exhaustive, scholarly biography of Mormon pioneer Jacob Hamblin, Compton’s A Frontier Life brings serious scholarship to the well-known Mormon pioneer. While previous Hamblin biographies have explored aspects of the life of this Mormon convert, “frontiersman, colonizer, missionary to the Indians and explorer of the American West,” it is the meticulous use of primary sources that uniquely distinguishes Compton’s portrayal.

“The author has sculpted a work that leaves us with a persuasive, full-blooded and full-bodied sense of Jacob Hamblin, who has been less known heretofore than his historical roles warrant,” noted one Evans Award juror. “This is a volume destined to have a long shelf life.”

According to the book’s preamble, Jacob Hamblin, who converted to Mormonism in 1842 — only a decade after the founding of the Church — was “one of the most enigmatic figures in Mormon history.” Hamblin played key roles in the settling of southern Utah and northern Arizona. He was a missionary, interpreter for John Wesley Powell, and pivotal figure in settler-Indian relations, advocating peaceful resolutions at a time when violent conflicts were prevalent.

Published by the University of Utah Press, A Frontier Life fleshes out the character of the man — his trials and triumphs. Though Jacob Hamblin is perhaps best known in relation to the infamous 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, Compton’s work makes clear that Hamblin served not as participant, but rather as a reporter of these events to Brigham Young and military investigators.

A Frontier Life is “a magnificent new biography which will immediately become not only the standard biography of Jacob Hamblin, but also one of the greatest biographies in the fields of Mormon and Utah history. Exhaustively researched and documented, and judiciously interpreted…” (Gary Topping, editor, If I Get Out Alive: World War II Letters and Diaries of William H. McDougall Jr.).

Dr. Richard Sadler, professor of history at Weber State University and member of the regional Evans Award jury presented the Biography Award to Compton. The winning author thanked the Evans family for supporting the award.

“I think it says a lot about the Evans family that history and its contributions are their focus, and I’d like to sincerely thank them,” Compton said.

Compton, a graduate of Brigham Young University, holds a PhD in classics from UCLA. Specializing in Mormon history and the classics, Compton’s previous works include In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith and Fire and Sword: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Northern Missouri (coauthored with Leland H. Gentry).

Evelyn Funda

Winner of the Evans Handcart Award for a book published in 2013 is Evelyn Funda (left), Utah State University professor of English. Susan Rugh, history professor at Brigham Young University, presented Funda her award, which included a plaque and prize of $2,500.

LIFE ON THE FARM

Emerging author Evelyn Funda was awarded this year’s Evans Handcart Award for her volume Weeds: A Farm Daughter’s Lament. Funda is an associate professor of English at Utah State University, where she specializes in American literature and teaches courses on American culture, including a popular course on the literature and culture of the American farm.

In her Western family saga, Funda recounts her family history and the inexorable forces and fortunes that tie it to its Idaho farmland. Wild grasses and flowers are the metaphors that link the family to the land and to each other.

Published by the University of Nebraska Press, the tale spans three generations and vividly explores the passion and heartache involved in turning a patch of southern Idaho sagebrush into a cherished family farm. In her thoughtful and thought-provoking work, Funda explores her personal history within the larger context of what is lost as the American dream moves from agrarian ideal to urban urgency.

In the book’s preface, Funda explains the decisive and wrenching events (the sale of the family’s last parcel of farm land and the deaths of both her parents that soon followed) that brought about a reexamination of her immigrant heritage and ties to an agrarian past that fused land and heart into something beautiful, transformational, and touchingly inescapable.

“Funda writes about farming, family, love, and loss with the ear of a poet and the eye of a scholar,” according to Kim Barnes, author of In the Kingdom of Men. “Weeds is a soulful, intelligent reexamination of what it means to be an orphaned daughter of the American Dream.”

Evans regional jury member and Professor of History at Brigham Young University Dr. Susan Rugh presented the Evans Handcart award to winner Funda, who spoke briefly before reading from her work.

“I really want to thank the Evans family because it takes a certain vision to see the value of a really unique mix of expectations for this award,” Funda said. “[Those expectations are] history, as well as good writing, as well as good research, as well as biography. That mix is pretty unique and there aren’t very many awards that recognize even two of those four kinds of things.”

Part cultural history, part memoir, and part elegy, Weeds: A Farm Daughter’s Lament serves to remind that “in losing our attachment to the land we also lose some of our humanity and something at the very heart of our identity as a nation.”

FAMILY AFFAIR

Three generations of Evans family members attended the 2014 Evans Awards ceremonies held at Utah State University’s Haight Alumni Center in October. Lambert introduced the awards and their recipients during an elegant luncheon. College of Humanities and Social Sciences Dean John C. Allen also helped present the awards and welcomed attendees and guests during the event.

“There are those out there in the world who say that books are dying,” Dean Allen said. “I think what’s taking place here today, a celebration of biography and writers who are putting their souls into books, is a good argument that that is not the case.”

Following the ceremony, many in attendance lingered to have copies of the winning works signed by the authors.

A national jury selects the Evans Biography Award winner, while a regional jury selects the Evans Handcart winner. Last year, 24 titles were submitted to the Evans Awards. The Evans Awards call for entries for books published in 2014 has already begun and will end February 15, 2015.

Previous authors who have received Evans Awards include Leonard Arrington, Levi Peterson, Terry Tempest Williams, Scott R. Christensen, and Ripley Hugo.