Category Archives: Mormon Culture

Community and the Mormon Novel

I recently revised an essay on transnational Mormon novels after an editor requested that I clarify my definition of the Mormon novel prior to publication.  His view was that the Mormon novel was not a distinct genre, as I had suggested in the article, but rather a thematic concern that any author could address, regardless of his or her background or beliefs. I took this to be a valid point, but I felt like it sidelined the crucial role community plays in the creation of art and culture. For me, after all, Mormon themes would not exist without a community of people giving them life, shape, and direction.  

Here is how I clarified my position on the matter:

Because novels have been written by both Mormon insiders and outsiders, what qualifies as a “Mormon” novel remains ambiguous. The existence of different Mormon faith traditions independent of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also complicates the matter.

Throughout this essay I refer frequently to the Mormon novel as a distinct genre. I do so to understand it as a cultural product of the Mormon people rather than a product that views and treats Mormonism as a thematic concern alone. In doing so, I seek to distinguish works by and about Mormons from works about Mormons from those with no cultural or ideological ties to the community. For the purpose of this study, therefore, the Mormon novel is any novel produced by a writer to emerge from the Utah Latter-day Saint tradition that demonstrates an overt investment in Mormonism in its content and themes. While this definition remains inadequate on a number of levels—where, for example, would Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game or Brady Udall’s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint fit within this definition?—it draws a clearer line of demarcation between works like Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist, say, and David Ebershoff’s The Nineteenth Wife.

What do you think? Am I being unfair to the thematic camp? Is community affiliation really that necessary?


Do We Need to Walk a Tightrope?

I recently read Orson Scott Card’s “Walking the Tightrope” from A Storyteller in Zion. The title had not sounded familiar when I began reading, but by the end of the first paragraph, which references the controversy over Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, I remembered that I had, in fact, read the essay—and forgotten it completely.

“Walking the Tightrope” is positioned historically between the excommunication of Sonia Johnson in 1979 and the 1993 excommunication of the September Six, making it a contemporary voice in the late-twentieth-century Mormon culture wars. In the essay, Card compares the division between the Mormon intelligencia and the Church hierarchy over matters of intellectual freedom, particularly the breakdown of communication and understanding, with an apparently similar division within the Muslim community. Card suggests, in both instances, that the heated reactions from all sides stem from a failure to acknowledge fault in one’s own actions—and in forgetting that “the finger of blame points both ways.” More specifically, Card argues that Mormon intellectuals, as insiders, tend to know what buttons to push to get a rise from the hierarchy—much like Rushdie knew how to anger Muslims in his depictions of Mohammed in his novel—and therefore are partly responsible for the “clamping down” on “non-official voices in the Church” that occasionally happens. Furthermore, he goes on to suggest that the public too often rallies behind “non-official” voices that are unworthy of them. Rushdie is one example he gives, and Sonia Johnson is another. In both cases, Card sees insidious intents—deliberate efforts to upset, disrupt, corrupt, and offend. Such destructiveness, it seems, is at the heart of Card’s objections to them. For him, their words do nothing but tear down.

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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.

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A Hot Two Days in Old Nauvoo: A Review of Sorts

The next time you make plans to do some summertime camping in Nauvoo, check the forecast.  It can get hot.  Hot enough to make you wonder why the heck anyone in the nineteenth century—that heyday of heavy fabrics and modest dress—would want to live there.  

Last month my family and I made that mistake. We had camped at Nauvoo before—several times—so we thought nothing of it.  Nauvoo State Park, after all, is a notoriously cheap place to camp—cheaper than any of Nauvoo’s novelty hotels—and it always has plenty of campsites and hardly any campers.

Plus, it’s close to everything.[1] 

So, after a seven hour drive, during which my four-year-old daughter and I invented a game called “Spot the Corn,”[2] we pulled into a beautiful campsite at the top of a hill overlooking other beautiful campsites, the trunks of several tall trees, and a row of rusty dumpsters.  It was a magnificent sight for one who had just spent a really long time in a van with a bunch of little kids.  Without delay, I got out of the van, greeted my parents (who had arrived there several hours before us), and proceeded to perspire like a seventh grade math teacher. Within five minutes I was wringing out my shirt and playing connect-the-dots with mosquito bites.

Of course, I should have been ready for the heat. For most of that day, the thermometer in our van was reading temperatures in the high nineties.  But temperatures like that are hard to imagine when you’re wrapped in the chilly arms of your automobile’s air conditioner. 

The AC, I have learned, can be a deceitful lover.

Fortunately, we were only in Nauvoo for a short visit, a stop-off on our way to a family reunion in Branson, Missouri.[3]  Still, at the end of every day I felt like Humphery Bogart looked just before he was killed in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  It wasn’t the best time of year to be outside.  Walking between each building in Old Nauvoo was like taking a stroll through the steamy insides of a flatiron.  After a while, we gave up and retreated to the climate-controlled visitor’s center, where we watched the kids play WWE Smackdown at the feet of the Christus statue.

By the late afternoon, though, we had to brave the heat again.  We returned to the campsite and let the kids play with a nearby water pump while we ate dinner and let our clothes get sweaty again.  Off to the west, the sun was setting, but the heat—like a has-been country star on a small-time Branson stage—didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

That night our plan was to see the new Nauvoo pageant, one of the main reasons for our being in town.  I had seen the older pageant, The City of Joseph, a number of times, but had a low opinion of it.  I wasn’t expecting the new one to be much better even though everyone I had talked to—including a brother-in-law who had performed in it—assured me that it was, in a word, “amazing.”[4]

I had my doubts.  Church pageants and I had never really seen eye to eye.  And I was feeling kind of sick.  I think the sun was getting to me.

At around seven o’clock we headed down to the pageant venue, where the cast members—in full costume—were holding a kind of country fair.  Various booths were set up for kids to make pioneer crafts and play with nineteenth-century toys.  In the center of it all was a makeshift dance floor where teenage cast members dressed in pioneer dresses danced with teenagers in modern-day shorts and t-shirts.  

Of course, as well-put together as it was, I didn’t enjoy the fair as much as the kids.  Like I said, I was feeling a little sick.[5]  But I was also extremely paranoid that someone was going to steal the choice seats I had informally reserved with a ratty picnic blanket and a beach towel a few hours earlier.  Maybe it was the effects of the sun on my brain, but I had convinced myself that some type-A with big teeth an entitlement complex was going to steal my seats for his wife and kids.  I even envisioned myself having a loud shouting match with the guy.

As usual, my paranoia turned out to be just that.  Everyone was really nice.[6]  No one even asked me for a member referral.[7]

But it was still hot—even after the sun set and the pageant got underway.  In the stage lights, swarms of mosquitos turned tight circles around each other, spinning haphazardly like rogue satellites, creating something of a smog of insects above the heads of the sweat-stained actors marching single-file onto the stage.  Bagpipers played “Praise to the Man” while two men held the American and Illinois state flag in front of the audience—creating, something of an ironic juxtaposition, considering that the original lyrics to the hymn about Joseph Smith’s martyrdom sang:

Long shall his blood, which was shed by assassins,
Stain Illinois, while the earth lauds his fame.

Ironic moments like that, of course, are part of any attempt to reimagine and portray the past.[8]  As peoples and attitudes change, I’ve learned, their take on history changes with them.  In the 165 years since the saints left Nauvoo, Mormonism has certainly shifted its focus a number of times, especially during the twentieth century, and its history—the way it tells its story—has not been immune to these shifts. 

The current Nauvoo pageant reflects this.  For example, I noticed that it places a lot more emphasis on Nauvoo’s racial diversity than its predecessor, The City of Joseph, by including Jane Manning as one of its main characters.  It also gives women characters, like Leonora Taylor and Vilate Kimball, a more prominent voice.[9] 

Immigrants, too, get a bigger voice.  One of the main story threads in the pageant is about a family of Scottish immigrants, the Lairds, whose story is meant to help audience members better relate to the events being portrayed on the stage.  Robert Laird, for instance, is a non-Mormon stonecutter who has his doubts about Mormonism. His wife, Becky, on the other hand, is a ready believer.  Both provide different perspectives on the Mormon message, and the idea seems to be that audience members can identify with either one or the other, if not both.

Sadly, for much of the pageant, I was wrestling my two-year-old, who goes crazy if she’s still awake by nine o’clock.  As much as I tried to get her interested in what was happening on stage—“Look! It’s Joseph Smith!” “Ooo! Do you like their dresses!”—she wanted nothing of it.  Half-way through the production, I found myself wandering around in the dark of the night, trying my best to watch the pageant and keep my daughter from screaming.  She seemed content only when I let her walk around on her own, which every parent worth his or her subscription to Parenting knows is not a good idea at nighttime—even in a crowd full of nice Mormons.

Eventually, I traded in my crazy two-year-old for my sleepy four-year-old, who fell asleep on my lap as Joseph Smith was delivering a shortened version of King Follett’s funeral sermon, which emphasized less our potential to become like the gods and more our ability to live eternally with our families.[10]  So I was able to see the completion of the Nauvoo temple and the beginnings of the trek west in relative peace.[11]

In another blog post, I mentioned that I was keeping my expectations for the new Nauvoo pageant in check.  After seeing it, though, I realized that I didn’t have to.  I was surprised with how much I liked it.  And not only because of the impressive quality of the production and the crisp economy of its storytelling.[12]  I liked how narrator Parley P. Pratt would occasionally break the fourth wall to remind us that the past has a place in the present, that the people of old Nauvoo remain there because we’re there to remember them and their legacy.  In a sense, it was a subtle reminder that Joseph Smith’s vision of generations welded together in an unbreakable chain is not something reserved for the afterlife.  It’s something that happens whenever something like the Nauvoo pageant helps us turn our hearts and minds back to the past. 

I admit I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I left the pageant.  Mostly I was still too irritated from the combination of staggering heat and wild children to reflect much on anything but how much I wanted to go to bed.[13] 

But since then I’ve had time to think about the many ways we make usable history out of the past.  The Nauvoo Pageant, after all, doesn’t tell the whole story of old Nauvoo.  (How could it in ninety minutes?)  So it’s slanted history, biased in a way that will likely irritate historical purists who see maliciousness in selective memory.[14]  But it does tell a story—true in a very real sense—that the average Jane and Joe Mormon can take home in their pocket or hold in their hand like a souvenir brick.  It’s history-as-a-reminder that they’re part of something much bigger than a weekly Sunday meeting or an occasional munch and mingle.

To my surprise, I’m looking forward to the next time I see the Nauvoo pageant.  In my opinion, it’s a production that’s remarkable without having to be crowbarred into remarkability—which is more than I’ve said about other pageants.  I’d recommend it for everyone.[15]

And in case anyone was wondering, I did not get into any scraps with anti-Mormons.  In fact, I didn’t see a single anti-Mormon or anti-Mormonmobile around.[16]  Nor was Old Nauvoo overly crowded—except in the air-conditioned visitor’s centers. 

I hate to think the heat was cause for these pleasant absences.  Maybe the anti-Mormons are getting soft in their old age and their zeal is no longer enough to keep them cool on hot summer nights in old Mormon country.

[1] Which, I admit, isn’t saying much for a town as small as Nauvoo.

[2] And a variation, “Spot the Beans.”

[3] One of the few places I’ve been where everyone on a billboard looks as if they’ve had a facelift.

[4] As a rule, I’m suspicious of a) anything my brother-in-law says (even though he’s usually right) and b) anything modified by the word “amazing.”

[5] More accurately: a lot sick.

[6] I think my paranoia about mean Mormons goes back to my days living in Provo, where everyone is rude at least once or twice a week.  Once, at a BYU football game, I asked one of my fellow Cougars a simple question and he responded in way that left it entirely clear—in my mind—that the guy was a solid, All-American fetch-wad. At another time, my wife and I—along with our newborn baby—were pulling out of the parking lot of the Wal-Mart in Orem when another clean-cut fetch-wad punched the trunk of my car and started yelling at me. To this day I don’t know why. I’ve reviewed the incident a number of times in my mind, and I can’t figure it out. My trunk, however, still has the faint outline of this chucklehead’s knuckles—a reminder of the day my car got sucker-punched. Anyway, those are only two of my stories about the rudeness I encountered in Happy Valley.  I have others. Such experiences, though, have almost disappeared since moving back to Cincinnati.  

[7] While I was fiercely guarding our seats, my wife was asked for one by one of the teenage cast members.

[8] Take a look at what we do with America’s Founding Fathers.

[9] As I remember it, The City of Joseph also included a woman’s perspective of old Nauvoo without really naming any of the specific women who lived there or giving them major speaking roles.

[10] Which, I recognize, is basically saying the same thing.

[11] Thanks to our crazy two-year-old, my wife did not.

[12] My many beeves with The City of Joseph hinged primarily on its lack of both of these crucial elements of good theater.

[13] Which turned out to be pretty crappy itself, since my bed was actually a sleeping bag in a tent that didn’t do much to lower the overall temperature.

[14] I have a lot of opinions on this. Maybe one day I’ll write about them.

[15] And I mean that: invite your friends. It’s not something you’ll have to apologize for.

[16] I did see one guy selling Living Scriptures videos in an LDS bookstore, but I didn’t talk to him. Instead, I perused the shelves (unsuccessfully) for good Mormon fiction.