Troubling the Metanarrative: A Review of Sarah Dunster’s Lightning Tree

The challenge of Mormon historical fiction is Mormonism itself. As a metanarrative, after all, Mormonism assumes history is a giant puzzle where every piece contributes perfectly to the whole. Eternity extends forever in all directions, but time unfolds with a purpose. Adam falls, Christ redeems, Joseph Smith restores. Every baptism furthers the gathering of Israel, contributes to Abraham’s posterity, and brings to pass God’s work and glory. When something bad happens, Mormonism assures us it’s all part of the plan.
Except when a few puzzle pieces refuse to fit. For example: Black men are kept from the priesthood for longer than a century, seemingly without explanation. This is where Mormon historical fiction becomes challenging. If all history is supposed to testify that God’s hand is in the details, particularly in respect to the unfolding of the Restoration, how do we make sense of the aberrations, the ill-fitting pieces? Do we ignore or whitewash them, as some authors have done, and focus on the bigger picture? Do we take a pair of scissors to the pieces and force them to fit? Or do we toss out the metanarrative and consign Mormon history to chaos of chance?
These are the questions Mormon historical novelists have to ask whenever they take on the Mormon past—especially when what they take on seems to challenge the integrity of the sacred metanarrative. This is what Sarah Dunster has done with Lightning Tree (Bonneville Books, 2012), a novel about the difficult years of the Utah War (1857-1858), an era of Mormon history that few Mormons today know much about. And for good reason. No time in their history have they been more afraid, more desperate, and more willing to grapple tooth and nail with their enemies. These were days when Brigham Young preached blood atonement and George A. Smith whipped southern Utah into a frenzy so intense that a handful of zealots carried out the Mountain Meadows Massacre, one of the worst atrocities committed on American soil. It’s hardly the stuff of a tidy metanarrative, and one can understand why a Mormon historical novelist would want to avoid it.   
Still, Dunster is not the first to set her novel during the Utah War. Nephi Anderson treats the war briefly in Marcus King, Mormon (1900), strategically skipping over any messy details with the assurance that “a great poet” would “[s]ome day […] find all he needs in the heart histories of those trying hours” (107). Perhaps trying to be that poet, Susa Young Gates uses the Utah War as the backdrop for her jingoistic novel John Stevens’ Courtship (1909), which paints the Mormons as innocent victims of a corrupt and heathen state. More recently, the Utah War—or something akin to it—has been the stuff of science fiction, with Lee Allred’s For the Strength of the Hills (2001) and D. J. Butler’s The City of the Saints (2012). Also, the Mountain Meadows Massacre has been featured in many novels, including Vardis Fisher’s The Children of God (1939), Lee Nelson’ Storm Testament IV (1985), Marilyn Brown’s The Wine Dark Sea of Grass (2001), Judith Freeman’s Red Water (2002), and Gerald Grimmett’s The Ferry Woman(2004).
Lightning Tree, of course, is like these novels in its determination to bring forgotten history to life. Set in Provo one year after Mountain Meadows, the war initially seems a thing far removed from the life of Magdalena Chabert—or Maggie—the novel’s fifteen-year-old French-Italian protagonist. Like most teenagers, Maggie is less concerned about regional political crises than she is about more immediate concerns: friendships, family, and growing up. She is an orphan, the eldest daughter of Waldensian converts who died on the trek to Zion, and feels her second-class status keenly. Angsty, rebellious, and resentful, she battles constantly with Ma Alden, her foster mother, over her own upbringing and the upbringing of her younger sister, Giovanna. She also harbors suspicions about Ma Alden that a series of terrifying dreams—and alarming discoveries—only heighten.
Unlike so many novels about the Utah War, however, Lightning Tree does not try to capture history with broad strokes. The turmoil of Johnston’s occupation of Utah, along with the haunting specter of Mountain Meadows, lurks beneath the surface of Maggie’s story. Yet, it is not until the end of the novel, when John Cradlebaugh arrives in Provo to investigate rumors of Mountain Meadows and other crimes, that history collides with the intimacy of Dunster’s narrative. Even then, however, Maggie’s story never falls by the wayside. Indeed, if Lightening Tree succeeds on any level, it is on the level of character. The Utah War and Mountain Meadows may be unfamiliar territory, but Maggie’s confusion, vulnerability, and loneliness are not. As a character, she serves as a helpful anchor for readers who feel adrift in the strange setting.
Maggie’s is more than an anchor, however. The trauma she experiences when she uncovers the truth of her dreams parallels the trauma of the Mormon people—past and present—in the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The way she copes with the startling truth—the way she comes to terms with it and the silence surrounding it—serves as a model for how readers deal with the ill-fitting pieces of the metanarrative. Moreover, like the reader, she must herself find a way to reconcile her faith with the rumors of the massacre, particularly since her foster father is implicated in them. However, unlike characters in The Wine-Dark Sea of Grass and Red Water, Maggie’s questions and fears about the Mountain Meadows are steps removed from the source. Her personal trauma, which is a figure for our larger historical trauma (and trauma from history), is her primary concern.
The distance Dunster keeps from Mountain Meadows is perhaps a reflection of her target audience, young adult readers. Lightning Tree zeroes in on grim years from the Mormon past, yet she does so without overburdening readers with the full emotional weight of the Utah War. As an adult reader who prefers to drink history straight, I wish Lightning Tree had more of an edge to it. While the story and its characters captivated me, I did not feel fully transported to the alien world of nineteenth-century Mormonism. To be sure, this is no critique against Dunster’s writing style or historical sense; rather, I think it is merely my reaction against the novel’s tight focus on Maggie’s young adult experience. Her naïveté makes her a heartbreaking, realistic character, but it also limits her perception. Had Dunster allowed the novel’s point-of-view to drift into the minds and hearts of her other characters, especially the complex Ma and Pa Alden, Lightning Tree would have resonated more with me.
At the same time, I recognize that this is an important novel for young adult readers—and certainly adult readers—who are interested in Mormon history. Far from the whitewash of The Work and the Glory and its imitators, this novel provides a matter-of-fact portrayal of nineteenth century Mormonism that is free of cliché. Dunster, for example, bravely incorporates into her narrative such taboo topics as blood atonement and polygamy, yet without the sensationalism that we see in works like Red Water, The 19th Wife, and True Sisters.
This, in my opinion, makes Lightning Tree a must-read work of Mormon historical fiction. It troubles our notion of the Mormon metanarrative puzzle, yet without the scary music that causes so many to flee the puzzle’s challenge. It draws us in, pulls us towards the truth(s) of history, and gives us ways come to terms with what we find.

5 thoughts on “Troubling the Metanarrative: A Review of Sarah Dunster’s Lightning Tree”

  1. .

    I don't know how I'm going to finish my pile of books. . . . I think I'm going to Stephen Carter's new novel next though. Soon as I finish James's book. Which means ignoring Sarah's and Steve's Moab.

    So many books.

    But I love having this problem. It hasn't always been true that exciting books have come out faster than I can read them.

  2. I still need to tackle Stephen Carter's new novel…and The Scholar of Moab. I also have a half dozen older novels on my shelf that I need to tackle.

    It is a good problem to have, but I wish I had more time to fix it.

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