Fissures and Feuds: A Review of Todd Robert Petersen’s "Rift"

I spent the last week of last year visiting relatives, eating too much junk food, and ignoring emails from an architect who wanted me to proofread and edit a series of personal statements he wrote for a prestigious academic job in California. I also read Todd Robert Petersen‘s collection of fifteen short stories and one novella, Long After Dark (Zarahemla, 2007), which offers, I hope, a glimpse of what direction Mormon fiction will take in the twenty-first century.

So much of the serious Mormon fiction out there, after all, is anchored in Utah, the Mormon homeland, where a majority of the Mormon population no longer hangs its hats. In Long After Dark, however, we get a more global perspective; Utah is represented, of course, but so is South America, Africa, and the Pacific Northwest. The collection’s novella, Family History, in fact, which has the odd distinction (along with The Backslider) of being both offensive and inspiring, takes place in three different settings outside of Utah: Las Vegas (showing, by the way, that not everything that happens in Vegas stays in in Vegas), Canada, and Los Angeles. Considering the international make-up of the church, that’s the kind of direction Mormon literature needs to be taking.

I finished Long After Dark with a high opinion of Todd Robert Petersen’ writing, so I was excited to read his next work, Rift (Zarahemla, 2009), which has won the prestigious 2008 Marilyn Brown Novel Award and, more recently, a 2009 Association of Mormon Letters Award.
Rift is about Jens Thorsen, an aging Mormon who, along with his wife Lila, first appeared in the inaugural story of Long After Dark, “Thorsen’s Angle.” Jens is the chronically cranky type, but he’s also a good-hearted old man with a predilection for theatricality and storytelling. When he’s not breaking down screen doors or shooting at crows with his shotgun, he’s serving those who have have fallen for one reason or another off the radar of the local Priesthood leadership. While these acts of service are an important part of the novel, it is Thorsen’s long-standing feud with his bishop, Darrell Bunker, that gives the book its main driving force. As the title suggests, Rift is about the fissures, often tragic, that open up between people and within families and communities.
Indeed, along from Thorsen’s feud with Bunker, the most significant fissure in the novel is between Bunker and his backsliding daughter, Angie. When Rift opens, Angie has just returned home from years of prodigality, and her father puts on a big show of welcoming her back in his fold. The problem is, Angie wants nothing to do with church. And it soon comes out that she’s pregnant. And unmarried. And unrepentant. Rift.

A lot of ugly things happen in Rift before it’s done, but it isn’t a a tragic novel. Indeed, aside from some morosity that forms the narrative’s emotional core, it’s a very funny novel. Thorsen is full of old man wit and grit, as are his friends who hang out at the local barber shop, so there is no end to comical banter and wry observation. Thorsen’s long-suffering wife, too, is a humorous presence, although in a quieter, more severe way. Like many Mormon women from her generation, she puts dinner on the table, but doesn’t take her husband’s crap. When Thorsen’s out of line, she lets him know–like when she scolds Thorsen for telling an “inappropriate” mission story at their grandson’s missionary farewell:
“Brandon was crazy to ask you to talk. I’m not sure whether to be more worried about you or all those foolish kids you inspired to break their mission rules.”
“I didn’t inspire anyone. I just told a sober tale, Mamma.”
“Sober? I’d have sworn you were drunk.” (122)
Of course, this novel’s strength is not so much in its humor, but in it’s wrestle with the uncertainties of faith. One of its themes, enduring to the end, is popular in Mormon discourse, but Thorsen’s experience with enduring hasn’t given him much reason to take comfort from it. In fact, he frequently rails against “all this enduring-to-the-end garbage they throw at you in church,” since those who talk most about it usually fail to mention “what it takes to endure like that” (169). But Thorsen is no quitter. For him, enduring to end is about pushing on ahead, not giving up even when God and His people aren’t making much sense.
Like many Mormon novels, Rift is set in rural Sanpete, Utah. In some ways, this is a step backwards from the global canvas of Long After Dark, yet I think Petersen’s choice of setting is justified if we look at Sanpete as a microcosm of the wider Latter-day Saint community. Indeed, like many Mormon communities, Sanpete has a tendency to mark its boundaries, close itself off, and stand guard against The World. The irony is, of course, that the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ is not really supposed to work that way. Faith, Hope, and Charity don’t have much influence behind closed doors. At least, that’s what Thorsen would say.
Without question, Rift is a strong addition to the Mormon canon. While it occasionally dips too deeply into farce–when the various fissures in Sanpete finally burst, for example, Petersen lets it play out too comically–it nevertheless addresses issues and attitudes about community and neighborliness that are becoming increasingly more relevant and unavoidable to Mormons as the Church becomes a visible presence on the national and international stage. Of course, in addressing these attitudes, Rift doesn’t end neatly, like the tidy denouement of a church video. Rather, it concludes with a whisper of possibility that space can be opened up within Mormon communities for people like Angie, the bishop’s pregnant daughter, who frequently struggle to find their place.

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