You can learn a lot from the Old Testament. For example, if you ever get stopped in a dark alley by a bunch of Gileadites with switchblades, DON’T call them “fugitives” because they take that kind of talk personally. More importantly, if they ask you to say “Shibboleth”–and, trust me, they will–DON’T forget to pronounce the “sh,” because if you don’t, it’s a dead giveaway that you’re not one of them. Gileadites, it seems, take their voiceless palato-alveolar fricatives very seriously.
Of course, Gileadites are rare in these parts, but I occasionally find myself occupying their role (sans weapon) when I read novels about Mormons by those who have not come out of the culture. Mormons, after all, have their own way of saying and doing things (Google the phrase “nourish and strengthen” and you’ll see what I mean), so when novels about Mormons fail to capture these cultural nuances accurately and effortlessly, they can come off sounding as empty as a Church parking lot on a Monday night. Much like the gang of Ephraimites in the Bible who couldn’t pronounce their “sh” sound to save their lives (literally), these novels betray their outsiderness with every syllable of cultural mispronunciation.
(By the way, if you’d like an example of a novel overflowing with Mormon Shibboleths, check out Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Cage of Stars, which proves that it takes more than Wikipedia research and a dependence on protestant stereotypes to write convincingly about Mormons and their culture.)
Now, I’m not saying that Mormon are the only ones who can write about Mormons. That would be absurd. Nor am I saying that good novels have never been written about Mormons by non-Mormon authors, since it takes more than the occasional Shibboleth to ruin a novel. What I am saying, though, is that the telling of Mormon stories requires that you create characters and situations that are more than just Mormon in name. Indeed, for Mormon novels to ring absolutely true, they need to ring effortlessly.
That’s no easy task, even for a Mormon writer, but Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth (Parables, 2008) proves that it is possible.
In fact, it’s Mormon fiction at its finest. To paraphrase the old youth fireside cliche: if this novel was arrested for being authentic Mormon fiction, there would be enough evidence to convict it. That said, it doesn’t club readers over the head with Mormonism. It’s characters happen to be Mormon, who speak and act and think like Mormons, but it never belittles readers by explaining to them, as some Mormon novels do, what that’s supposed to means.
Bound on Earth is about a modern Mormon family, the Palmers, who have been bound together for eternity by Mormon temple ordinances, but who are mostly struggling to make it through the day. Their problems are not unique, of course, but they are the kind that no one likes to talk about in Sacrament meeting or Sunday school. Rest assured, no one in this novel is whining about “Dear John” letters or home and visiting teaching appointments. In the first section of the novel, for example, the Palmer’s youngest daughter, Beth, is dealing not only with her estranged bi-polar husband, but also with her family’s refusal to talk about him. Everything about the situation tells her that she needs to cut ties, leave him and start her life over, but she remains uncertain about the choice. “I’ve been digging and digging,” she says at one point, comparing her husband to a skier buried in the snow. “I don’t know how long I’m supposed to keep digging until it’s okay for me to stop trying to find him” (8).
At 197 pages, the novel is a quick read. Each of its fourteen sections is like a short story or vignette that touches on one or more incidents from Palmer family history. Most sections cover a time between 1981 and 2007, although two important sections cover 1857 and 1969 respectively. No section, I think, is inferior to the others; Hallstrom, whose writing style reminds me of what I like about Bobbie Ann Mason’s, has ensured that every piece of the novel is engaging and has purpose. By the time you finish reading it, you wonder how so much complexity can be crammed into something that seems so simple.
Bound on Earth, of course, isn’t a perfect novel. While reading it, I occasionally felt that a few of the stories being told (emphasis on few) required more emotional intensity and grit. This is especially true in one section, “Who Do You Think You Are?,” about what happens when Beth, as a freshman in high school, falls in love with her liberal, non-Mormon English teacher. While much about the story works, particularly in its characterizations of conservative Mormon students and parents, it pulls some punches when Beth visits the teacher’s house to apologize for her community. Everything about the visit is creepy and disturbing, and it comes across that way, but in a slightly restrained way.
Still, despite its restraint, “Who Do You Think You Are?” is a memorable part of the novel. So too are the sections “Thanksgiving,” “Accusation,” “Trying,” “Mission Call,” “Birthday,” and “Faithful.” Each of them tell modern Mormon stories effortlessly, without the distractions of Shibboleths. Indeed, if Mormon literature is going to get anywhere, it needs more writers like Hallstrom. Bound on Earth, with its authentic Mormon voice, should not be overlooked.