Category Archives: Mormon Literature

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.

Continue reading Do We Need to Walk a Tightrope?

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Mormon Tragedy Revisited, Part II

Since finishing my post on Mormon tragedy for Dawning of a Brighter Day, I’ve been thinking more about the relationship between authors and characters. As I stated in the post, Mormon tragedy is (likely) only possible if we are willing to damn our characters–by which I mean I think we must be willing to let them step off the path towards exaltation and stay there. Following the essay I cited by Adam Miller, this stepping off can have much to do with the way  characters respond to conflict: do they face them in the present moment or do they reject and flee from them? Tragedy, I concluded, occurs when characters run from the grace of Christ–or that which has the potential to redeem them.

If this is the case, I don’t see a great deal of tragedy in Mormon fiction–at least among primary characters. Douglas Thayer’s The Tree House, for example, is one of a Mormon literature’s best studies of suffering and pain, but it’s ultimately hopeful message, which affirms everyone’s dependence on grace, makes it a somber comedy. The same is likewise true about Levi Peterson’s The Backslider and Jack Harrell’s Vernal Promises (the latter being a kind of rewriting of the former), as both novels depict the journeys of characters who step off and then return to the path of exaltation. Indeed, if there is any Mormon novel that affirms the sanctity of the present as givenness, it is The Backslider and its life-affirming and life-advocating Cowboy Jesus. The same is true for Steven Peck’s often bleak A Short Stay in Hell, which, despite its rather tragic feel, ends with Soren Johannsen’s affirmation of purpose in his search for way out of the hell in which he finds himself.

Continue reading Mormon Tragedy Revisited, Part II

Nephi Anderson Sites in Brigham City

Nephi Anderson lived in Brigham City from 1890 to 1904. During that time, he worked as a teacher for the Third Ward schools, served a mission to Norway, and published  more than forty works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. In 1900 and 1902 he was elected and reelected county superintendent of schools, and in late 1903 he was called to assist Heber J. Grant in editing the Millennial Star in Great Britain.

Shortly after his call, tragedy struck. On Christmas Day 1903, his wife Asenath began showing signs of sickness. By the end of January 1904 she had not improved, and she died on the 26th. They had been married for just over seventeen years. Together, they had six children–two girls and four boys. Three of the boys died shortly after birth, though, and the surviving son, Gerald, was always sickly.

The grave marker for Nephi and Asenath’s three sons who died  in infancy.
NOTE: The marker incorrectly identifies Anderson as Nephi C. Anderson rather than C. Nephi Anderson.
Curious…

Asenath was buried in the Brigham City Cemetery beside the graves of the three infant boys. I visited the graves last month during my trip to Utah for the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities conference. The graveyard is only a few blocks away from the home where I believe Anderson lived when his wife passed away. Nearby is also the grave of the Andersons’ oldest daughter, Ronella, and her husband. It is also within sight of the grave of Lorenzo Snow, one of the founders of Brigham City and President of the Church between 1898 and 1901.

Asenath’s headstone

What I believe to be Anderson’s last home in Brigham City is now a funeral home, Olsen-Meyer Mortuary, across the street from the Box Elder Tabernacle and a block away from the new Brigham City Temple. I visited the home immediately after leaving the graveyard and found two women there who let me in and gave me a tour. Neither knew anything about Anderson or the history of the home–aside from the fact that it was owned by Lorenzo Snow–but they showed me what in the home was original and what had been added on when it was converted into the funeral home. They also let me take pictures.

Olsen-Meyer Mortuary
former residence of Nephi Anderson
205 South 100 East, Brigham City, UT

I believe Anderson lived in the home based on a picture I discovered in the digital collection of Utah State University, which labels it his home. I only hesitate to call it Nephi Anderson’s home because I currently lack additional corroborating evidence tying him to the house. Also, on my way out of the cemetery, I saw a headstone for another Nephi Anderson in the city. It seems to have been a popular name. I don’t want to jump to conclusions…

Nephi Anderson Home, ca. 1898
205 South 100 East, Brigham City, Utah

My optimistic guess, of course, is that it is his house. The picture is labeled 1898, which would place it around the time Added Upon was published. If this is his house, then it is likely that the woman and two girls on the front porch are Asenath, Ronella (age 11), and Laurine (age 2).

Asenath and Laurine?
Ronella?

The inside of the house is, as one would expect, funereally Victorian. The women who worked there, again, were unsure about what was and was not original to the house, but it had an old-ish decor and I image certain elements–the staircase, the fireplace, the chandelier–could possible date back to Anderson’s day.

Perhaps the oddest part of my visit to the Nephi Anderson home was my glimpse into the Anderson bathroom–or what could have been his bathroom–which the funeral home now uses as a storage closet. The woman who showed me around said that they assume the room was the bathroom based on old pipes sticking from the wall. I have no reason to doubt them.

I hope to get better evidence that this was the house of the Nephi Anderson. If it was, then this house has enormous significance to Mormon literary history. Maybe after I make my first million, I will purchase it and turn it into an Anderson museum–especially since Anderson’s Salt Lake City home near the 10th Ward Chapel is not a strip mall with a closed Hostess bakery shop.

Site of Anderson’s last home
722 East 400 South, Salt Lake City
Now I just need to make my first million. Or try to crowd-fund my way into ownership. 
[Insert cynical laughter here.]
But on a more serious note, I end with a poem Anderson wrote in his Great Britain mission journal on 3 March 1905, what would have been Asenath’s thirty-seventh birthday:
Dear Lord, to her who lives with Thee
     My birthday gift confer,
That she today my think of me,
     As I now think of her. 
Asenath Anderson Grave
Brigham City Cemetery
Post Script: Here are a few more picture for good measure…
The Logan Temple
Nephi Anderson and Asenath Tillotson were sealed here on 22 December 1886

Another shot of the house…

The Brigham City Temple
I think Anderson would like today’s view from his old front porch step

A side view of the temple

Moroni…

The Box Elder Tabernacle
Across the street from Anderson’s house. He would have attended meetings here. 

Personal Mormonism: A Review of Stephen Carter’s What of the Night?

The personal essay and Mormonism go way back. Joseph Smith wasn’t much of a writer, but he took every opportunity to dictate his life story to his scribes. More often than not, these dictations were rather mundane and clerically impersonal, revealing a life spent in meetings and councils and conferences. Occasionally, he would strike an anecdotal note, particularly when he wanted to set the record straight on his story. He would then narrate fantastic events and give them meaning. He would endow a common grove of trees with light or a brilliant meteor shower with apocalyptic grandeur.
At these times, Joseph Smith wore the hat of a personal essayist—and he wore it well.
Stephen Carter carries on this tradition with What of the Night? (Zarahemla Books, 2010), a rare collection of personal essays about Mormons by a Mormon—mostly for Mormons. Many Mormon readers already know Carter’s work, of course, from Sunstone magazine, that bastion of alternative Mormon thought that Carter has edited since 2008. Most of the essays in What of the Night?, in fact, first appeared in Sunstone or its bastion-brother Dialogue, which is not surprising considering the alternative Mormon story they tell.
Or seek to tell. Like Joseph Smith, Carter finds meaning everywhere—in the dead husk of a gutted fish, in the smoke circles of his brother’s cigarette habit, in the solid aftermath of a digested habanera—yet the conclusions he draws from these meanings are never as cocksure and conclusive as the Prophet’s. Joseph Smith wrote with a certainty that bordered for many of his contemporaries on righteous arrogance. Carter writes in an opposite vein, however: a kind of doubt fueled by wicked humility. Here, for example, is his take on the Priesthood and the weight it carries:
Sometimes I wish I didn’t have this weight. Sometimes I wish I could drop it: the power, the responsibility, the tradition, the expectations. I wish I could cut all the ropes and just fly for a little while, scope out the scenery and choose a nice place to visit. Sometimes I envy the people who can leave the Mormon church, who can forget about their priesthood, who can find a new tradition that suits them better, or create their own. What would happen if I didn’t have to wrestle this angel anymore? (Kindle Location 462)
Honest admissions like this are scattered throughout What of the Night? They give the collection a vulnerable voice that is all but absent from the writing in mainstream Mormon publications. In essays like “The Weight of Priesthood,” where the above quotation comes from, and “The Calling,” an account of Carter’s last month in the mission field, this vulnerability seems particularly gutsy because it exposes the often unspoken chinks in the armor of Mormon masculinity. Carter, in a sense, presents himself as a Thayeresque hero. Burdened with the legacy of Mormonism, awed and alarmed by the responsibility of manhood and priesthood, he struggles to reconcile the real of his experience with the ideal of his religious education. Like Harris Thatcher, the protagonist of The Tree House, he feels the vague presence of truth constantly, but never succeeds in holding it in his hand for very long. As he notes in “Writing as Repentance,” the last essay in the collection, this constant—sometimes futile—grasping for truth has placed him in the relatively unexplored canyon between the mountains of Mormon and anti-Mormon orthodoxy.
Despite its honesty, however, I felt that What of the Night? was missing something. In his essay about the priesthood, for example, Carter has much to say about his early experiences with the Priesthood, yet becomes vague when he describes his post-mission shift from orthodox belief to doubt. “Doubting is a difficult business in Mormonism,” he writes, “especially if you were raised in the church.” This is true, of course, but Carter largely leaves you to take his word for it. What is missing, in a sense, is the narrative of Carter’s own descent down the mountain of orthodox Mormon belief. As readers, we know that Carter doubts, but we never get the specifics of why. What happened in the “five years after [his] mission” that led him to doubt? What doctrines or ideas troubled him the most? What were the effects of this changes on those he cared most about? Detail are surprisingly few, especially considering the standard transparencyof the personal essay genre.
Lacking as well are other, less personal details. While I enjoyed his essays on Eugene England, I felt that they needed to supply more background on England himself, especially since the pre-Bloggernacle England and his legacy are becoming increasingly more distant as the years pass. Moreover, I felt that the collection was altogether too short. Carter is a fantastic writer who has a keen understanding of the American Mormon mind and culture. By the time I finished What of the Night?, I was ready for more.
Which is to say: What of the Night?, despite its unfortunate omissions, is worth your time. In fact, it is worth more time than it actually demands from its readers. It is, after all, a fairly quick read.
Finally—and I invoke the language of testimony—I would be ungrateful if I did not mention “The Departed,” the essay from the collection that resonated most with me. It is not, to be sure, the best essay in the collection—that would be “The Calling”—but it is the essay that speaks of what I value most in Mormonism outside of my own personal commitment to its doctrines and teachings: the Mormon artist. In this essay, the Artist is Mormon filmmaker Richard Dutcher, but Dutcher functions for Carter (and the reader) more as a symbol for Mormon creative potential in the essay than as a living, breathing artist. As Carter observes, Dutcher stands apart from his contemporary Mormon filmmakers—the Hesses, Ryan Little, Neil LaBute—because he “took Mormonism seriously in all its peculiarity, in all its promise, in all its paradox,” yet was met with a deaf ear by the Mormon community. Carter asks:
What can you do when a huge part of your community can’t or won’t hear the unique voice you’ve cultivated? What do you do when parts of your community condemn you for exercising your talents? What do you do when your community ignores or reviles the stories that nourish you? (Kindle Location 947)
As usual, Carter doesn’t give us the pleasing answer. The title of the essay—“The Departed”—references a kind of historical exodus of Mormon artist away from the community that nurtured them—a perpetual Lost Generation that includes not only Dutcher, but also poet May Swenson, Carter’s great aunt.  “Maybe one of Mormonism’s roles in the world, beside producing FBI agents, is to export artist to the world the way the Soviet Union used to,” Carter suggests. The notion troubles me immensely, but with Carter I regret that “the field of Mormon arts has been left to hard-working but only semi-talented artist [or, in my case, critics] like me.” I’m optimistic that the situation will improve—in fact, I’ve seen a lot of work lately that gives me great hope—but I still think we have miles and miles to go.
The good news is that we still have Stephen Carter. And that means we’ll likely have more books like What of the Night? in the future.  

Flooding the Bloggernacle with Mormon Literature…?

Recently on A Motley Vision, Wm Morris suggested that Mormon literature advocates are potentially looking beyond the mark when they strive after “literary respectability.”  For him—and I hope I’m representing his point accurately—such a pursuit is misguided because any respectability Mormon literature could gain from, say, a national audience or a literary establishment would have to come at a price, namely a willingness to be co-opted by the establishment “for its own purposes,” whatever they may be. 
As I see it, this observation implies a few things.  First, it suggests that Mormon literature, to be wholeheartedly embraced by the literary powers-that-be, has to be willing to be used politically, much like other minority literatures are sometimes used politically by the establishment, to convey a certain openness or multiculturalism that may or may not actually exist in the establishment itself.  In other words, it implies that practitioners of Mormon literature must be willing to let the literary establishment pat its own back on their account.
The observation likewise suggests that Mormon literature must be willing to become what is accepted as respectable by the establishment, which also means that it must be willing to change whatever there is about it that is not acceptable. To gain respectability, that is, Mormon literature has to be be willing to justify itself to the literary world by becoming a kind of Mormon version of what already exists in the establishment—a Mormon Shakespeare or Milton or Roth or Morrison.[i]
With respectability, therefore, Mormon literature risks achieving a kind of Pyrrhic victory: on the one hand, it gains recognition and admiration; on the other, it becomes another literature colonized by the new canon—a compromised literature forced to masquerade as authentic.[ii]
Overall, I tend to agree with Morris on his assessment of the current price of respectability: to make Mormon literature respectable and accessible to the establishment (I don’t see how you could have one without the other) Mormon literature would have to make some changes.  Especially if you want it right away.
Look at the examples of The 19th Wife and The Lonely Polygamist.  Also take a look at Big Love, The Book of Mormon, and Angels in America.  Each of these works is about Mormonism, in one way or another, and has managed to achieve critical acclaim and respectability on a national scale—certainly more so than any novel ever published by a Mormon press, including Deseret Books. 
The message seems clear: if you want your Mormon stories to be taken seriously by the establishment, then they have to either depict non-traditional sexualities (at least in the mainstream Mormon community) or cast Mormonism, with its magical Kolobian underwear, as a big joke.[iii]
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that polygamy and homosexuality aren’t important issues in contemporary Mormonism. Nor am I saying that they are inappropriate for Mormon literature. [v]  What I am saying, though, is that they’re not the only issues occupying the Mormon mind. 
The fact is, no one is breaking down doors to read Douglas Thayer or Todd Robert Petersen or any other Mormon writer who chooses to write anything that comes close to suggesting that Mormons are something other than a herd of sexually-repressed/repressive/oversexed weirdos.[vi] 
Why is that?
Part of me hopes that it is a matter of accessibility.  National critics and audiences, including the literary establishment, are open to Mormon stories about polygamy and homosexuality because they are about national issues—issues about which they have strong opinions.  Works like The Lonely Polygamist and Angels in America, therefore, find a wider audience because they address issues that appeal to a wider audience, often in ways that affirm what many readers already feel on the issue. 
The same cannot be said, however, about a book like Summer Fire or The Backslider. Who but a Mormon could identify with Owen Williams or Frank Windham?  Who but a Mormon could get Jack Harrell’s “Calling and Election”?[vii]
Not many.
Possibly, one way to remedy the barrier between national audiences and more authentic Mormon literatures (i.e. gain literary respectability) would be through education.  Teach a national audience, or the literary establishment, about the issues that are important, say, to contemporary Mormon novelists, and the audience will be more likely to be interested in and understand the novelist’s work.  If minority literatures show us anything, they show us that we can connect with lives and cultures different from our own as long as they make us care enough to connect.
Of course, making an audience care is tricky.  In a guest post on Dawning of a Brighter Day, I once suggested that one way to make certain audiences—specifically, academic audiences—care about Mormon literature would be to develop a body of academic writing about Mormon texts.  My idea was that if you produce and publish a sizable body of Mormon literary criticism in reputable venues, then academic recognition and respectability would follow.  I still believe this is true, although I readily admit that it will take years and years to bring about.
I wonder if the same principle applies to other audiences as well.  If enough of a buzz is made nationally over Mormon literature, would it be sufficient to make people care enough to read a Mormon text on its own terms?  Probably, but you still need to find venues willing to cooperate with the buzz efforts.  It would be great, for instance, if Oprah selected Bound on Earth or Long After Dark for her popular (and respected) book club, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.[viii]  In fact, for the moment, I think a spot on the Oprah Book Club is setting ambitions too high.  It’s definitely looking beyond the mark. 
As I see it, for Mormon literature to gain wider literary respectability without being colonized by the establishment,[ix] it’s going to need to take it’s time and win its audience over.  In fact, before it can take American audiences by storm, it will first need to find a solid Mormon audience.  Then, after it has established itself within the Mormon community, and demonstrated its ability to make a dollar, it will have enough uncompromising advocates to carry it safely to the next level, even the Kolobian realms of Oprah.[x]
Of course, getting Mormons to read Mormon literature is a difficult endeavor, and everyone seems to have an opinion on why it hasn’t happened yet.  Personally, I don’t think it’s a matter of offensive content or finding Mormons who actually read.[xi]  Rather, I think it’s again a matter of education: Mormon readers don’t know what’s out there that’s worth reading.  
I wonder, then, if the next step toward respectability is to work toward popularizing Mormon literature among the Mormon masses. No, I don’t mean allowing Mormon literature to be colonized by popular Mormon tastes,[xii] but rather taking the message of Mormon literature to  Bloggernacle sites other than, say, A Motley Vision or Dawning of a Brighter Day, where readers have already gotten the message.
This strategy, of course, has been proposed before.  Last year, Jonathan Langford posted on A Motely Vision about his attempt to start a conversation about Mormon Literature on an Amazon.com messagae board.  I think he’s got the right idea, although I wonder if Amazon is the right place for it.
Currently, the Bloggernacle has many popular, well-travelled blogs that address Mormonism culturally rather than doctrinally or institutionally.  I wonder if flooding these sites with energetic guest posts about Mormon literature might be the way the get the word out among the Mormons.[xiii]
In his essay “The Burden of Skepticism,” scientist Carl Sagan chides his fellow scientists for their apparent unwillingness to popularize science for the masses, leaving the door open for pseudo-science to take its place. He reasons that if scientists were able to explain science to “the average person” through “accessible and exciting” means, then the masses would become more interested in real science, and imaginative substitutes, like astrology, would begin to lose its audience.
Could this be true also with Mormon literature? If Mormon literature advocates blasted the Bloggernacle with “accessible and exciting” posts about Mormon literature, would Mormon readers begin to seek out Bound on Earth before The Help?  Would that be enough to get Mormon literature on the road to respectability without compromise?
Or do we need to wait for a Mormon Oprah to do the job for us?


[i] I think Morris makes an important, potentially revolutionary point here.  Thanks to Orson F. Whitney, who said that Mormons will someday have Shakespeares and Miltons of their own, Mormon writers have looked to the day when a Mormon Milton or Shakespeare would arrive on the scene, messiah-like, and grant respectability to Mormon literature.  In his post, however, Morris seems to be suggesting that we’re placing too much hope in this “prophesy”—and possibly even allowing it to lead us and Mormon literature astray.  I hope he’s right in this respect, since a gentile Milton is bad enough.

[ii] I recognize, by the way, that terms like “Mormon literature” and “literary establishment” are problematic because they are vague and unspecific.  What makes a work of literature authentically Mormon? Who makes up the literary establishment?  These are questions for other posts. For the sake of this post, though, think of the literary establishment as those who put together or are included in, say, the Norton or Longman literature anthologies that are used by universities across the country.  

[iii] If anything irritates me more, it’s the phrase “magical underwear,” which seems to be a media darling.

[iv] And your example can’t include a story about a grisly, religiously-motivated murder, either.  Sorry Krakauer fans.  

[v] In fact, I’d be willing to say that a Mormon literature that is not willing to address these issues is not much of a Mormon literature at all.

[vi] Of course, the more I read of nineteenth century depictions of Mormon, the more I realize that this has always been the stereotype.  The Book of Mormon musical brings nothing new to the table aside from a few catchy songs. 

[vii] I’m a Mormon, and I’m not sure I entirely get it.

[viii] While Oprah has endorsed a book about Mormons before, it is not a book many Mormons will likely appreciate.

[ix] A case of having cake and eating it too.

[x] Personally, I hope we set our sights higher than Oprah—although, I admit, Oprah would be big.   

[xi] There is an erroneous belief, perpetuated by frustrated Mormon readers, that Mormons don’t read.

[xii] That didn’t work out too well for Mormon cinema.

[xiii] I tried to do this recently, with moderate success, on the blog Modern Mormon Men with a guest post entitled “The Five Mormon Books Every Modern Mormon Man Should Read.”

Douglas Thayer and the Adolescent Adam: A Review of "Summer Fire"

Douglas Thayer’s fiction clings doggedly to the Mormon boyhood.  His protagonists, usually young men from Provo, exist in a limbo state between innocence and knowledge.  Indeed, like adolescent Adams, they often bite into forbidden fruits—usually violent in nature—and find themselves stranded in lone and dreary worlds.  In this respect, they share blood—in more ways than one—with the protagonists in the fiction of Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy, two writers whose works famously explore the ways violence shapes masculinity.  But where the protagonists of Hemingway and McCarthy succumb to the violence of a fallen world, Thayer’s hold on to the possibility of joy and redemption, even when neither possibility is readily discernible. 
This optimism, in some ways, sets Thayer apart from much of contemporary American fiction, which is either overly clever or overly morose in its bleak depiction of modern life.  As a writer, Thayer resists such pessimism without discarding the hard realities of life.  His stories, therefore, are sad and often heartbreaking, but never tragic.  Nor are they about simple dualistic worlds where good and evil are easily distinguishable.  Usually, only a few crucial life decisions separate Thayer’s protagonists from his antagonists.   
As a reader, I’ve encountered Thayer’s fiction in a haphazard way.  His second novel, The Conversion of Jeff Williams (Signature Books, 2003), which I read shortly after its publication, was the first novel I experienced that treated contemporary Mormonism in a realistic way.  Earlier this year, I read (and reviewed) his third and most recent novel, The Tree House (Zarahemla Books, 2009), which is likely his best and most ambitious work.  Between reading these two novels, I also read several of his short stories and his memoir, Hooligan: A Mormon Boyhood (Zarahemla Books, 2009).  Finally, this past week, I finished his first novel, Summer Fire (Signature Books, 1983).
Summer Fire is about Owen Williams, a sixteen-year-old Mormon boy who lives with his mother and grandmother, has “always kept the commandments,” and soon expects to be “the only boy in his ward with both his Eagle Scout badge and Duty to God  Award” (5-6).  The novel begins as Owen and his cousin Randy board a bus that takes them to a Nevada hay ranch where they have been hired to work for the summer.  For both Owen and Randy, this is the first time they have been away from their home in Provo for an extended period.  It is Randy’s father’s hope that the summer job “will help make men out of both of them” (2).
Physically, though, Owen has a long way to go.  Thin, with a history of sickness, Owen is a far cry from the cowboy image of masculinity that confronts him on the ranch.  Manual labor does not come naturally to him, and he is more used to playing the piano and reading moralistic literature—Drinking and the Young American, Animals that Love, How the Youth Prepare for Temple Marriage—than clearing irrigation ditches and pitching hay.  Randy, on the other hand, seems more suited for the work and the bunkhouse environment it fosters.  He arrives at the ranch already in cowboy duds, and his literature of choice is back issues of Playboy.
Filling the role of antagonist in Summer Fire is the Staver, the ranch foreman, who carries a thick white scar down the length of his chest from a heart wound he received in the Korean War.  He is, in some ways, the antithesis of Owen: around the ranch he is crude, irreverent, petty, and sometimes brutally violent.  Yet he also possesses certain positive traits that Owen’s own self-righteousness undervalues or overlooks.  With Owen, for example, he is sternly patient whenever the boy makes big mistakes, like overinflating the wheels on his pick-up truck, spilling a can of red paint, or sending the wrong calve to be slaughtered.  Staver is also quick with a compliment whenever he sees a job well done.  As a character, he is a multi-sided die whose behavior is never quite predictable.  Once you begin to like and admire him, he does something to make you despise him.  Then you learn more information about his past, and your view of him again changes entirely.
    
Like Thayer’s other novels, Summer Fire is a Mormon coming-of-age story.  During his time on the ranch, Owen had a series of experiences that help refine his character and smooth the roughest edges of his commitment to personal righteousness. Indeed, throughout the novel, Owen grapples with reconciling the teachings of his beloved seminary teacher, Brother Anderson, with the moral ambiguities of ranch life.  As he does so, he gains terrifying insights into his own potential for good and evil in the world.
Often, Staver is the catalyst for these insights, and Owen frequently loses himself in violent fantasies in which he and Staver switch roles:
I wanted to run and tackle [Staver], knock him down in the mud and manure, get on top of him and push his face down in it and keep doing that until he pleaded with me to stop, and I stood and pulled him up and shoved him against the fence, and then I climbed though the fence and walked away.  I wanted Staver to feel what it was like.  That’s all I wanted, so he wouldn’t do it to other summer hands.  (120)
Such fantasies offer readers another view of Owen that contrasts sharply with the Golden Boy image he tries so hard to convey. Early in the novel, for instance, he is sure that he “couldn’t torture and kill people,” but that certainty erodes as he becomes increasingly more confused about the meaning of personal righteousness, and his ambivalence towards Staver gives way to hate. 
When the day comes that I teach an Introduction to Mormon Literature class to a room full of Latter-day Saints, I’m going to assign Summer Fire.  Not only has Thayer written the novel in an incredibly teachable way—it employs traditional plot structure, a clear theme, and plenty of accessible symbolism—but he has also used it to address many of the basic doctrines (i.e. atonement, eternal progression, etc.) that young Latter-day Saints learn about and discuss in the Seminary program.  What is more, the novel has a kind of ageless quality about it, despite being set sometime in the mid-1960s, possibly due to its remote setting, timeless themes, or even Thayer’s own distinctive, unadorned prose style.  Whatever the case may be, readers are unlikely to be distracted by any details that would betray the fact that it was published nearly thirty years ago.  
Summer Fire, in short, is an excellent novel that deserves recognition as a classic of Mormon fiction.  For readers who are familiar with Thayer and his fiction, this is old news.  In 1985, Eugene England praised Summer Fire for being “the first ‘real’ Mormon novel in nearly thirty years […] to deal seriously with Mormon characters and ideas” (Dialogue 18.4, 197). Since then, dozens of other novels have followed its example, dealing seriously with Mormonism and slowly establishing a canon of texts built largely upon the foundation established by Thayer’s unswerving commitment to telling Mormon stories. While it is not Thayer’s best work—again, that distinction, in my opinion, remains with his masterful The Tree HouseSummer Fire remains a solid stone in that foundation.

Summer Fire is currently out-of-print; however, you can purchase a second-hand copy of it from Amazon.com for as little as $0.43 plus shipping.

500 Words on Why Mormon Fiction Should Avoid Utopian Spaces

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “Utopia” as “[a] place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions.”  The original terms, of course, derives from Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book, Utopia, which describes how such a place would be run.  
Today, when we talk about utopian spaces, we are generally referring to safe-havens perfectly suited for people who have been screwed over by society. Early in Mormon history, Joseph Smith and his followers attempted to build utopian spaces in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Later, Brigham Young and the pioneers tried again in Utah and its surrounding regions. In each case, the Saints came up short. 
Today, the Mormon utopian dream is a dream deferred, although remnants of it still exist prominently in such practices as tithing, temple work, service, Church welfare, and home and visiting teaching. While these practices do much to ease the burdens of the persecuted and create a more utopian space, they are not perfect.
Zion is still yet to be redeemed.
In “realistic” fiction, utopian spaces occasionally pop up. For instance, in John Steinbeck’s excellent Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family visits the Weedpatch Camp, an idyllic government-run haven for migrant workers in California. For the Joads, as well as for Steinbeck’s readers, the Weedpatch Camp presents the perfect remedy for the squalid living conditions, abuses, and exploitations that workers were then subjected to.  The suggestion is that if there were more places like the Weedpatch Camp, families like the Joads would be able to stay together and survive.
In many ways, the Weedpatch Camp episode injects much needed hope and idealism in an otherwise bleak novel. At the same time, however, something about Steinbeck’s depiction of it makes it seem a little too perfect and idyllic—and that kind of perfection is suspicious to me.  As a reader, I’m happy that the Joads find a clean, safe place to stay for a while. But, at the same time, I also want a whole picture. What’s the other side to the Weedpatch Camp?
My point is this: perfect places don’t exist in this life and safe-havens are not without dangers of their own.  When we begin to believe otherwise, we take our first steps toward disillusionment, disappointment, betrayal, and apostasy. As Mormons, we believe that nothing can currently exist without the influence of some kind opposition. Our goal, therefore, is not to be rid of opposition—i.e. achieve a perfect state—but to exist well despite of it. Of course, this means that everything we do or are, every space that we make, will be imperfect, subject to dissolution.  Real spaces are flawed.
Realistic Mormon fiction should avoid the lie of utopian spaces—especially when they’re meant to be uniquely Mormon.  Otherwise, it runs the risk of becoming the worst kind of inspiration fiction—the candy fluff that seeks to “pacify, and lull [readers] away into carnal security,” leading them to believe that “All is well in Zion.”  

Small-Press Mormon Fiction

When I tell people that I study Mormon literature, I usually get one of two responses:

1. From Non-Mormons: Really? I didn’t know there was such a thing.
2. From Mormons: Like what? Twilight?
In many ways, both responses are really just different ways of saying the same thing. Non-Mormons, of course, tend not to know much about the church in the first place–aside from its associations with polygamy and what they see on the evening news or HBO–so I’m not too surprised by their response. And, to be sure, I’m not that surprised by the responses of my fellow Mormons. While we generally know a great deal about our church and its doctrines, we don’t generally familiarize ourselves with the creative output of its members. We know the big names, but not the little ones.
Already I know some people are going to object. “I know Mormon literature is more than Twilight,” they’ll say. They get the Deseret Books catalog in the mail. They’ve hung a Greg Olsen painting on the wall. They’ve read (and enjoyed!) Glenn Beck’s most recent novel. So, there you have it.
Well, actually, there you don’t have it.
Admittedly, what I’m about to say may sound elitist, but it’s not (or, at least, it’s not trying to be). In fact, I have nothing against popular Mormon culture, or any kind of popular culture, really. I believe that culture is culture, popular or otherwise, so everything is worthy of consumption and study. (For the record, I’ve read and written seriously about all four Twilight novels and even cried while watching the film version of Charly.) However, I tend to lament (especially on long car ride or sleepless nights) that certain aspects of Mormon creative cultural are not more widely known and studied.
One such aspect is small-press Mormon fiction (I say “small-press” to avoid the more problematic and divisive term “literary,” although I readily recognize that “small-press” has its own problems). While these books are abundant indeed, few are reading them. I’d hate to have it said that Mormon fiction underwent a renaissance that no one noticed.
So, why aren’t they being read? For the moment, I’m not entirely sure. Some of it, perhaps, is their lack of visibility. You won’t find these books on the shelves of your local bookstores–at least not anywhere outside of Utah and Idaho. Another reason, perhaps, is content, since they tend to deal with themes and issues that don’t make for light Sunday reading. Also, judging from reviews of these books on Amazon.com, readers either see them as “too Mormon” or “not Mormon enough” (which seems to boil down to the number of four-letter words in the book, although I hope I’m over-simplifying things). Maybe, after looking more into the matter, I’ll have a better answer.
Of course, I’m new to these books too; in fact, it’s only been over the past year that I’ve begun to take them seriously. It could be that most of them suck (no vampire pun intended). However, what I’ve read of them is promising. If you want a good place to start, check out the short story collection Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, edited by Angela Hallstrom and published by Zarahemla Books.
Also, to be a better advocate of Mormon fiction, I’m going to be reading several Mormon novels and reviewing them here. I hope you will find the reviews useful.