In “The Rise of Light,” novelist Olivia Hawker plumbs the depths of family trauma in the familiar setting of Rexburg in the mid-1970s while also writing lyrically about art and the experience of outgrowing a place, religion, or expected role in society.
Hawker, who now lives in the San Juan Islands in Washington, was born and raised in Rexburg as a member of the Ricks family—her roots go deep in eastern Idaho. She describes “The Rise of Light” as her most painfully honest novel to date; while it is fiction, she admits it’s loosely based on some of her family members’ experiences sixty-some years ago.
In the novel, two young adults feel trapped in their household with an emotionally abusive father, while an outsider from Seattle gets pulled into their orbit and tries to help them break free.
“I don’t get too specific about it when I talk about the book, because I do have such a large family (in true LDS fashion) and everyone has their own interpretation of events, of our family’s story,” Hawker told the Teton Valley News via email. “I have mine, and some of it is here in this book.”
Art plays as large a role as family in “The Rise of Light”; a main character, Aran Rigby, is a talented painter who feels tied to his traditional family and obligated to continue his father’s sign-making business, while also wanting to pursue his passion.
Hawker draws considerably from a lifetime spent around artists.
“I grew up absolutely surrounded by art, which is such a blessing, and has turned out to be a major benefit in my career as a writer,” she said. “My dad and my grandpa were both professional painters so my earliest memories all take place in their studios, watching them paint. My family was also close with many other Idaho artists, including Sergei Bongart and the Berberian brothers, so I had a truly exceptional exposure to art as a child.”
“I also grew up knowing that careers in a creative, artistic field were possible; no one in my life ever told me ‘You can’t make a living as a writer, so you’d better have a backup plan.’ I declared at age eight that I was going to be a writer someday, and my whole family encouraged me from that point on. What a gift!”
Hawker is no longer a practicing Latter-day Saint, but her familiarity with and connection to the church and culture is evident in her nuanced take on religion through the lenses of different characters.
“Obviously, the religion is a major part of that culture, but I think there’s plenty of room for people who’ve been raised within the LDS church—yet don’t find that this religion (or any religion, for that matter) resonates with their own personal ideals and spiritual expression—to embrace the parts of Mormon culture that do hold personal resonance,” Hawker said. “The church molded entire parts of my personality and my outlook on life, as it did for my ancestors.”
In the climax of the novel, the Teton River breaches the newly-built dam and destroys the lowlands of Rexburg, a real-life catastrophe that members of Hawker’s family witnessed in 1976.
Her father, Douglas Ricks, had been painting en plein air on the Bench above Rexburg, Hawker said.
“He just heard the commotion in town and then, moments later, saw a wall of brown water smash into Rexburg. It was a very dramatic tale, and it really stuck with me.”
One small but significant pleasure in reading this novel as a resident of eastern Idaho is the many familiar references; rural communities seem to be underrepresented in most fiction, so when Hawker name-drops places, entities, and sensory experiences that are specific to Rexburg and the surrounding areas, it feels like she’s speaking directly to each of us.
“The Rise of Light” will be released on Aug. 17, 2021. It is available for preorder on Hawker’s website, hawkerbooks.com.