This week I finished Edward P. Jones’s historical novel The Known World, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2003. It’s the first non-Mormon novel I’ve read this year, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in slavery fiction.
Of course, even as I was reading The Known World, I couldn’t help thinking how unfortunate it is that we have nothing like it in Mormon literature. Jones’s novel, after all, is endlessly complex in the way it handles character and setting, and, like much of contemporary American literature, it abandons the coherence of linear storytelling in favor of a chronology that emerge gradually, in pieces, like the image on a puzzle. It is not, therefore, only about the narrative, but also about how we arrange the past in order to construct history.
Mormon literature, to be sure, has no lack of historical fiction. Over the past two decades, in fact, the Mormon historical novel has developed into one of Mormon literature’s most successful genres. If you don’t believe me, take an informal poll of how many members in your local LDS ward have a complete collection of the The Work and the Glory series tucked between a Harry Potter box set and a marble bust of Joseph Smith as Fitzwilliam Darcy.
I hate to say it, though, but a lot of Mormon historical fiction bores me. One reason why, I think, is that so much of it relies on the comforts of linear storytelling, which tends to lead to the kind of predictability that often plagues historical fiction. In my opinion, the archive, not the textbook should be historical fiction’s paradigm.
And Mormon historical fiction would do well to populate its pages with characters who talk and think and act in ways that suit their settings. If a novel is set in 1860s Utah, the Mormon characters shouldn’t talk like their twenty-first century counterparts. Fortunately, Mormons have always been journal keepers, so there are plenty of dusty records of early Mormons out there to help with authenticity.
Which brings me to my last point. About two years ago, I found the pioneer journal of my great-great-great grandfather on a bookshelf in my parents home. Between accounts of his never-ending struggles with his wives and the occasional missionary labor, I founds descriptions of his visions and encounters with otherworldly beings–both good and evil. These passages in his journal fascinated me, and they led me to believe that my visionary ancestor was somehow unique. I have since discovered, however, that he was rather typical. Early Mormons, it seems, saw a lot of strange stuff. Sundry visits from the Three Nephites and Cain don’t even begin to scratch the surface.
Yet, if otherworldliness was no uncommon part of the pioneer experience, why don’t we see more of it in realistic Mormon historical fiction? Personally, I’d like to see more of it.
(I should state, by the way, that Angela Hallstrom’s short story “Unbroken”–published as “Christina” in Bound on Earth–is a great example of the kind of visionary realism I’m trying to describe here. When I first read it, I felt like Simeon forty days after Christmas.)
I need to write a paper on Emily Dickinson, so I’m going to stop here–even though I’ve got more to say on the subject. I’ll have to save it for another post. Until then, I’ll be on the lookout for good Mormon historical fiction.
If you have any recommendations, let me know.