Shawn Vestal’s Daredevils Captures the Angst of a Teen

Shawn Vestal’s novel, Daredevils, centers on agency; particularly, the agency of women and children within fundamentalist and polygamist Mormon enclaves. With beautiful and insightful syntax, Vestal details the life of Loretta — rebellious, sexual, normal teenage girl — and her betrothal (at her parents’ insistence, as a punishment for sneaking out with a boy) to a polygamist leader of her community with a burgeoning family. Set in the 1970’s, Vestal’s novel shows affection for both a bygone era and the pace of smaller town life in Idaho and Arizona. The author writes people of faith — whether in prayer or reverent, secular fandom — with respectful scrutiny. Though Daredevils’ messages about growing up, choosing one’s own path, and rejecting the patriarchal mores of farm and religion are clear, Daredevils stays primarily in safe emotional territory. This is the milquetoast coming of age of an underage polygamist bride; Loretta’s arranged marriage is more a function of setting than of pressing conflict. What she wants is her own car, the open road. Choice. Something from a magazine ad.

Interspersed with Loretta’s chapters are those from non-polygamist Mormon boys, and an occasional humorous missive from Evel Knievel, as he “addresses an adoring nation.” Knievel (or his lookalike? we’re never meant to know for sure) plays an important role in an Elko casino as plot lines converge. But as with an unexplored backstory of Ruth, Loretta’s sister wife, Knievel’s sermonic chapters don’t amount to more than supplementary detail. Knievel’s bravado and comedic relief are a nice foil to the meekness of Loretta (“The way in is always the same,” he says. “To believe it before it’s true.”), but in the flesh, the Knievel character disappoints. In the case of most of Vestal’s minor characters, it feels as though there are opportunities for a stronger, darker motivation or connection — perhaps a stronger link between Knievel’s messiah complex and the control-hungry men in the polygamist sect.

What Vestal does well is capture the angst of the typical teen, the fear that accompanies most of their decisions. He writes of Loretta:

She is sure that her future is a specific place, a destination she will either reach or miss, and it awaits her out there somewhere away from all that is here. Away from the long cotton dresses. Away from the tedious days in church school, studying the same scriptures they study all day on Sundays. Away from her father’s stern but halfhearted righteousness and her mother’s constant acquiescence.

Loretta’s hunger for more for herself — an image of single life she fixates on from an advertisement — drives all of her actions, and once she tastes true freedom she’s hooked. She uses men to her advantage, and ultimately to ensure her own escape. Loretta often doesn’t understand the import of her own actions, but suffers consequences mostly without complaint. Vestal writes Loretta as someone biding her time, always looking for the next opportunity. She’s just not quite sure what to do with opportunity once she gets it.

One troubling element of Daredevils is Loretta’s response to sex with her husband — who waits reluctantly until her birthday so she is no longer underage. It is possible to see her lack of reaction as a function of her personality (it seems clear she’d allow Dean what he wants in order to get what she wants — in this case, time). But despite her teenage flippancy and penchant for seeing men as a way out of life, it’s troubling that this forced sexual relationship has little effect on her. The first time she submits to Dean,

…she doesn’t like it at all. But she is in it, and she knows that when you are in it, whatever it is, there is no point in wishing otherwise, and so she tries to let her mind go somewhere but she can’t make it go anywhere, this is all there is right now, and then it’s done…

Loretta tolerates the act because she has no choice, yet it is something she fears and dreads. Her husband is much older. She has no choice, no agency over her own body. Though she is of age once the act occurs, Vestal downplays her parents’ complicity in a forced sexual relationship — being condemned to sexual slavery. The author also downplays its effect on Loretta, who tolerates it repeatedly, and tells the reader as much. To Loretta, sex with her polygamist husband seems only slightly more troubling than being forced to go to Seminary once the family moves.

“It is only about the choosing,” Loretta tells us. “Nothing else. The choosing, that it be hers.” Though the stakes are not high in this coming-of-age novel, Vestal’s ability to turn a phrase makes it move quickly. It’s hard for Daredevils to escape the cloud of Krakauer’s work in Under the Banner of Heaven. This is not the world of murderous cults, a world where people would kill to keep their way of life. Vestal’s polygamists are softer, nicer polygamists. And though there are some missed opportunities in Daredevils, it’s not a bad story. It’s just not one that challenges its characters as much as it could.