As my review of Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven suggested, a lot Mormon missionary fiction is pretty lousy. A few years ago, in fact, one Mormon writer counseled aspiring Mormon writers to lay off the missionary stories since no one is going to be interested in their mission stories unless a) someone gets murdered, or b) they involve polygamy (since “polygamy will always be more interesting that your mission stories”).
Fortunately, there are exceptions to this rule. Douglas Thayer’s recent novel The Tree House (Zarahemla Books, 2009) is one of the best Mormon novels ever written–and probably the best missionary novel out there. Everything, it seems, that On the Road to Heaven does wrong, The Tree House does right. That’s probably because Thayer is a well-respected veteran of Mormon fiction. He knows what he’s doing with words.
Of course, The Tree House is not just about missionary work–and even when it’s about missionary work, it’s not really about missionary work. The novel begins in Provo in 1945, a few months before World War II ends; its main character, Harris Thatcher, is fifteen-years-old, idealistic, and relatively carefree. He dreams of growing up, getting drafted, fighting the Germans or Japanese (if the war doesn’t end too soon), serving a mission, and getting married in the temple. He’s poor, but he has the best of everything money can’t buy: the best father, a great best friend, a loyal dog.
Life eventually slaps Harris in the face. His father dies on the day Japan surrenders, and hard times keep coming. In interviews, Thayer has stated that he is interested in writing about righteous Mormons, or mostly righteous Mormons, whose faith gets tested to the extreme. For example, in one of Thayer’s best short stories, “Wolves,” a young man like Harris seeks adventure by riding the rails during the Great Depression; instead of finding adventure, though, he is tortured and held captive by a sadistic man who preys on hobos. The young man survives the experience, but he’s irrevocably changed and bruised on the far side of innocence.
Thematically, The Tree House is very similar to “Wolves.” Harris eventually leaves Provo to serve a mission in post-War Germany. There, he learns about the reality of war and its devastating effect on those who experience it. While serving his mission, the Korean War breaks out, so as soon as he returns home, he is drafted into the Army. While in Korea, Harris learns about war first hand, and his faith is all but destroyed.
Of course, Thayer’s not interested–as far as I can tell–in writing stories about the loss of faith, although he’s certainly not against taking his characters to the outer limits of their faith. He’s also not interested in telling stories that wrap things up in a nice, uplifting package. The Tree House asks a lot of questions that don’t always have clear and easy answers–about the nature of faith, for instance, or the gaps that often exist between the abstractions of religious belief and the hard realities of the material world. It’s a book that makes you think about the depths of your own beliefs. Likely, you will never experience as much tragedy as Harris, but his story gets you wondering how you would react to tragedy if you came face to face with it.
The Tree House is not about polygamy, which means that it is a Mormon novel that is not being widely read. Still, despite its noticeable lack of domineering patriarchs and child-brides, its worth checking out. The first few chapters are a little slow, which should come as no surprise since they take place in Provo, but the book quickly becomes hard to put down. The chapters that take place in Germany and Korea are especially good and thought-provoking. All too often, novels like this one (and Thayer’s previous novel, The Conversion of Jeff Williams) are overlooked, so give it a chance. You probably won’t find it in your local library, unless you live in Utah, so you’ll probably have to buy it.
That said, there are worse ways to spend $10.00.