On Mormon Writers and Cultural Tithing

All the TruthJulie Berry’s’ All the Truth That’s in Me (Viking 2013) is this year’s Whitney Award winner in the Best Young Adult General Novel category. It has been well-reviewed by the New York Times , The GuardianPublisher’s Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews. It has also received a number of other national honors, including an Edgar Award nomination.

The novel tells the story of Judith, a young woman who cannot speak because half of her tongue has been sliced from her mouth. How and why she was mutilated in this way remains a mystery for much of the novel, although Judith’s stark and haunting narration makes it clear that it has something to do with Colonel Whiting, a shadowy outcast from her village who had kidnapped and held her captive for two years. When the novel opens, Judith’s captivity is a thing of the past, although the physical and emotional scars it left are ever-present in Judith’s interactions with her family and village, a Puritan-esque community called Roswell Station. Her daily life consists of subsistence living, silently doing chores to keep her struggling, fatherless family from starvation. Because of her muteness—and unanswered questions about her captivity—she is a curiosity with a dubious reputation. Most in her village, including her embittered mother, doubt her intelligence and virtue.

The draw of the novel is Judith herself. Wounded but strong, she wants the dignity and respect everyone wants from their neighbors. Helping her achieve that dignity are her few close friends: Maria, who gives her confidence to speak despite her damaged tongue, and Lucas, the son of her kidnapper. In fact, it is to Lucas, whom she loves, that the novel’s narration is directed. Written in second person, as a kind of love letter and confession to Lucas, the novel has an intimate voice that is honest and uninhibited. Through it, we get a portrait of Roswell Station not from its center of power, but from the margins—where the forgotten and ignored reside. It is a perspective any teenage reader can relate to.

Although I am thankfully beyond my teenage years, and not generally a reader of YA fiction, I appreciate much about All the Truth that’s in Me, particularly the eerie first third of the novel. Like Hawthorne’s Puritan stories, the novel is acutely aware of the dark undercurrents that exist in religious communities where even the suspicion of wickedness is punishable. While the novel shares some obvious literary DNA with The Scarlet Letter, Judith is no Hester Prynne; still, like Hester, her constant need to defend herself against the assumptions and accusations of her village—her always already-presumed guilt—makes her a perfect character for exploring issues of religion, community, and morality. Indeed, as a Mormon reader, I can’t help but read Judith’s story from the context of current discussions on modesty rhetoric and rape culture. Roswell Station is clearly not a Mormon community, but it could be changed into one easily enough.

To be sure, All the Truth that’s in Me already addresses these issue for a broader audience, reaching out to all women—particularly young women—who feel victimized and silenced. As the recent mass shooting at UCSB shows, along with the viral social media response to it (#yesallwomen), misogyny is pervasive in our society, leaving scars as traumatic as Judith’s on its victims. Considering how narrow the market is for Mormon fiction, I can sympathize with Berry’s choice to set her novel in a village unhinged from time and space. In doing so, she creates a something of an “everyplace,” a world that is alike enough to our own hometowns that we can see ourselves reflected in it.

Still, All the Truth that’s in Me would have made an excellent Mormon historical novel. With a mystery just as interesting (and well-written) as the one in Sarah Dunster’s Lightning Tree, it could have eased itself almost seamlessly into the weird hand-to-mouth existence of late-1850s Southern Utah. Isolated, teeming with paranoia and religious zealotry, Roswell Station is another Cedar City on its guard against invading “homelanders.” Transplanting Judith, Colonel Whiting, and the rest of Berry’s cast into that world would have given Mormonism (and Mormon literature) a historical novel it deserves. More importantly, though, it would have given readers a book that speaks directly to the Mormon present, engaging the gender-related issues that are rapidly becoming the most pressing points of tension in twenty-first century Mormonism. To say that it would be a significant contribution to Mormon letters (not to mention Mormon culture itself) is an understatement.

Interestingly, though, Berry seems to have no interest in writing stories about Mormons or for the Mormon market. In a recent interview with Mormon Artist, for example, she states that while she has “toyed with the idea” of writing Mormon fiction, her “hope and goal was always to write books that would be found in libraries and bookstores around the world.” Keeping in mind that All the Truth that’s in Me would have maybe sold 500 to 750 copies if it had been published by Cedar Fort and even less if it had been published by Zarahemla, I can’t argue with her choice to reach for the broadest possible audience. Still, I think it is unfortunate that many of Mormonism’s best writers are not writing Mormon fiction. I get, of course, that it is not a lucrative market—and I can’t imagine that it is a very satisfying one either for an author with great expectations. Setting All the Truth that’s in Me in a familiar-feeling, quasi-Puritan America gives it broader appeal that increases Judith’s potential to empower more readers with her courage and moral integrity. If it were recast as a Mormon historical drama, set against one of the most controversial and little-understood eras of Mormon history, the novel would run the risk of being largely ignored—unless, of course, the author herself were already as well-established as Orson Scott Card or Shannon Hale. Then it would simply have mediocre sales and a few wacky Amazon reviews denouncing it as Mormon propaganda.

Lest I begin to sound like the cynical Mormon literary blogger that I swore I’d never become, I should state that as much as I sympathize with the desire to write books for the world’s libraries, I’d much rather see our best writers embracing the risks of Mormon storytelling. Not to the extent, of course, that writers like Berry should entirely give up writing about other communities and consecrate their talents solely to Mormon fiction—because I understand how that could feel confining or limiting to creative people who are as invested in mainstream society as they are in Mormonism. Still, I do not think it a bad idea for Mormon writers to pay a cultural tithe to the cultivation and betterment of the Mormon literary canon. If every Mormon writer as talented as Julie Berry published at least one Mormon novel in their career, especially if that novel were as good and as bold as All the Truth that’s in Me, I wouldn’t have any reason to fear for the future of Mormon letters. As it is, though, I worry about Zion’s libraries and bookstores. Lately, their shelves have seemed a little bare.



3 thoughts on “On Mormon Writers and Cultural Tithing”

  1. I floated the idea of a Mormon culture tithe a while back and it was not met with much enthusiasm, although it’s a practice that I personally engage in.

  2. Thanks for reminding me — the comments to my post are a little more warm to the idea than I had remembered. Maybe it was Twitter that was skeptical.

    I will say this: if authors are worried about the impact on their mainstream career, there’s always the pseudonym option. In fact, I like the idea of a positively valenced “Alan Smithee” for Mormon writers. Something that uses initials or a gender-neutral first name so it could be either a male or female. Although it would need to be administered by someone so there were layers between the author and the final product. Too bad there’s no Mormon fiction focused literary agent who could facilitate such a thing.

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