The first volume of L. T. Downing’s Adventures of the Restoration series, Get That Gold! (Zion BookWorks, 2013), drew on the conventions of adventure fiction—action, peril, fast-paced plotting, cliffhangers—to the early history of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon to create a compelling story that successfully kept its target audience of young readers on the edge of their seats.
The recently-published second volume, The Pilfered Papers, attempts to replicate that effect in its telling of the lost 118 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript. This is no easy task, however, since for much of the book, Joseph Smith and Martin Harris are sitting at a table as they translate the Book of Mormon. Moreover, when they are not translating, they are wrapped up in domestic scenes that depend more on the drama of human relationships and character growth than on action. This is the significant difference between Get That Gold!, which had chapter after chapter of physical action and intrigue, and The Pilfered Papers.
Fortunately, Downing makes it work extraordinarily well by creating interesting characters who draw readers into seemingly mundane domestic situations. From the start of the novel, which opens in the office of Professor Charles Anthon, Martin Harris carries the story forward with his deep desire to prove to his wife (and everyone else) that the Book of Mormon manuscript is divinely-inspired and that Joseph Smith has not deceived him or swindled him out of his money. His motivations throughout the book—from his desire to aid Joseph to his desire to convince his wife of the value of Joseph’s work—are complex and real. Downing often gives us insightful glimpses into what may have drawn him to Joseph Smith and caused him to act the way he did throughout the translation process.
Joseph Smith is also an interesting character, although he’s more of a secondary character in this novel. Joseph is more mature and confident than he was in Get That Gold!, but still in the process of growing into his calling. Some of the best moments in The Pilfered Papers, in fact, occur when Joseph is confused or in distress, and Downing does excellent work in her handling of Joseph’s fragile emotional state during these times.
Another important character in this decidedly character-driven novel is Lucy Harris, Martin Harris’s fiery wife. While she at times comes across more as a caricature than a character, she has moments of genuine feeling that make her an interesting figure throughout the book. Indeed, her relationship with Martin is the most interesting throughout the book, creating the kind of compelling conflict needed to drive the book forward.
As with Get That Gold!, however, the true value of The Pilfered Papers is the way it dramatizes history and helps young readers get a better sense of what it was like to experience the early days of the Restoration. To create a vivid and accurate picture of the time period, Downing draws on new understandings of the Book of Mormon translation process that will certainly be surprising to readers who are only familiar with the popular and historically inaccurate images of the process that have dominated Church-published materials in the past. For instance, Downing does not shy away from seer stones or hats, but makes ample and natural use of them—possibly for the first time in Mormon historical fiction. In my opinion, this alone is enough to recommend the book to young readers and their parents.
But The Pilfered Papers has more to offer than a fresh take on Book of Mormon translation. It is another strong contribution to a book series that deserves a wider readership among young Mormons, who are over-fed with fantasy, but starved of good Mormon historical fiction. If you have kids and you want them to have a better grasp on Church history and a stronger appreciation for the men and women who lived it, L. T. Downing’s The Adventures of the Restoration series is the series to read. I’m already looking forward to the next book.
NOTE: I received a review copy of The Pilfered Papers from the publisher.