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Another Restoration Adventure: A Review of L. T. Downing’s The Pilfered Papers

PilferedPapersFRONTCOVER.jpgThe 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.

(Read my interview with L. T Downing about Get That Gold! and the Adventures of the Restoration series here.)

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.

Continue reading Another Restoration Adventure: A Review of L. T. Downing’s The Pilfered Papers

Best and Worst Reads of 2013

Unless I finish Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis before midnight tonight, I will have read 49 books this year. That’s down significantly from last year, but in my defense I’ve been working full-time on my dissertation, which has left little time for reading books (and writing blog posts) that are unrelated to the project. So most of what I’ve read in 2013 have been for the dissertation or for the two literature classes I’ve taught this year.

As usual, I’m listing the five fiction and five non-fiction books I’ve enjoyed best this year–and the five books–fiction or non-fiction–I’ve enjoyed…er…least. Books I’ve read before are not included in the lists.

Best Fiction Reads of 2013
1. The Age of Innocence–Edith Wharton
2. McTeague–Frank Norris
3. Byuck–Theric Jepson
4. The Scholar of Moab–Steven L. Peck
5. The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint–Brady Udall

Honorable Mentions:
Lightning Tree–Sarah Dunster
Aspen Marooney–Levi S. Peterson
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets–Stephen Crane

Best Non-Fiction Reads of 2013
1. The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation–Armand Mauss
2. What of the Night?–Stephen Carter
3. The Mountain Meadows Massacre–Juanita Brooks
4. The God Who Weeps–Terryl and Fiona Givens
5. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930–Thomas G. Alexander

Worst Reads of 2013
1. Redemption Road–Toni Sorenson Brown
2. The Ferry Woman–Gerald Grimmett
3. American Massacre–Sally Denton
4. Elders–Ryan McIlvain
5. Falling Toward Heaven–John S. Bennion

To be fair to both Bennion and McIlvain, I gained more appreciation for their books after writing about them in my dissertation. Still, it’s been a great year of reading–without a lot of clear duds–and I’ve got to have a list of five. They take their spots by default. Neither are anywhere close to being as bad as my top three worst.

Connor’s Q&A with Author L. T. Downing

My daughter recently had a chance to ask author L. T. Downing questions about her historical novel for kids, Adventures of the Restoration: Get That Gold! Here are L. T. Downing’s responses:

Connor Hales: How do you come up with ideas when you write your books? 

L. T. Downing: The ideas for the Adventures of the Restoration series came because I love history and storytelling. I have read a lot of history books about the early days of the church, but those books were too boring to read to my own children. So I began telling them about the really amazing things that went on during the Restoration period. Next thing I knew, I was writing those stories down.

CH: When did you decide that you were going to become a writer? 

LTD: I remember the moment I decided to be a writer like it was yesterday. I was four years old. When I was a baby, I never learned to crawl and a very famous baby doctor had written a book that claimed that babies who never crawl are likely to have trouble learning to read. My mother was worried I wouldn’t be a good reader so she started teaching me as soon as I turned four. To her surprise, I took to it very quickly. One day I was sitting with her on the edge of my parents’ bed, reading a story that had a big red can in it. My mom kept telling me there was no red can in the story. I got mad and kept pointing to the word. “C-A-N,” I said. Then she pointed to the last letter and asked me to look again. Well, can you believe it? The word was spelled “C-A-R.” The big redcar. Not can. I was astonished that changing one little letter at the end of word could change the entire meaning. That’s when my mom said, “When you grow up, you can go to college and study English. And if you want, you can become a writer.” Bam! Decision made. At the age of four, I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful—and powerful—than creating meaning by arranging letters into words and words into sentences and sentences into books. I still think that. 

CH: Was it fun writing the book? 

LTD: YES! There is nothing that is more fun than writing books for kids. Except for Halloween. And Christmas is pretty good too. 

CH: How long did it take to get your book published? 

LTD: Don’t ask! I wrote Get that Gold! and the next book in the Adventures of the Restoration series (The Pilfered Papers) when my oldest child, who is twenty-four now, was about ten years old. I mailed the manuscript to two LDS publishers in existence then. I was told that the first publisher to whom I sent it would take it, but, in the end, the person with the final word rejected it. He said he didn’t think it was a good idea to publish a novel with Joseph Smith as the point of view character. After all, no one knows exactly what Joseph Smith was thinking when those men in the woods attacked him. I guess the publisher thought kids might get confused and not understand what fictionalized history is. But personally, I think kids are really smart. The other publisher I sent it too didn’t seem to understand that it was written for young people because they sent me a nice letter explaining how I should make the work much, much longer and more like The Work and the Glory series, which was written for adults and has books that are hundreds and hundreds of pages long. I felt sad that they wouldn’t publish the Adventures of the Restoration series because I really felt like Heavenly Father inspired me to write them. But I also figured I’d just trust Heavenly Father and move on to the next thing. Your mom and dad will probably tell you that God’s time schedule is not the same as ours. They are right. Nearly fifteen years after writing Get that Gold!, it found a publisher. 

CH: How did you become interested in Joseph Smith? 

LTD: I became interested in Joseph Smith when I was fourteen years old. Before then, I’d never heard of him. I was raised in the Catholic church. But I began hearing about Mormons when I was in eighth grade, so I looked them up in the encyclopedia. That was the first place I learned about the First Vision. I went to the public library and checked out a Book of Mormon. I did a lot of praying and received a testimony of the work of Joseph Smith. I always thought he was very brave. I know sometimes I was scared about joining the church because my family and other people didn’t believe that the gospel needed restoring. I spent a lot of time thinking about how brave Joseph Smith had to be to do what he did. He wasn’t a perfect man. He made mistakes. We all do. But he is my hero. So it helps my testimony stay strong to think about the hard things he had to do so we could have the gospel of Jesus Christ restored to the earth. 

Mormon Literature: A Sunny Outlook

By now everyone has read Mark Oppenheimer’s article on Mormon literature in the New York Times. Typical in its approach, it highlights Mormon successes in genre fiction and offers a few explanations for why these successes happen and why they aren’t more forthcoming in a Mormon-flavored “Realist literature for adults.” The reasons he puts forth seem to be as follows: Mormons are uncomfortable with realism, Mormons are afraid of “church disapproval,” and Mormons are culturally geared towards a “sunny outlook” that privileges uplifting narratives over realistic literature that presents sex, violence, and swearing without judgment and moralizing.
In his eloquent and insightful response to this article, George Handley rightly calls Oppenheimer out on these reasons, particularly the notion that literary greatness is some alchemic mixture of “great suffering,” book sales, and national recognition. Mormon writers, Handley suggest, have made great strides irrespective of these factors, and will likely keep doing so “before the rest of the world notices.” For him, rather, Mormons have “underachieved” in the realm of realistic Mormon literature—or “Great Mormon Literature”—as a result of a number of cultural flaws: their reliance on “triumphalist rhetoric,” a “thirst after quick and easy forms of [cultural] vindication,” and rather narrow ideas “about what constitutes a Mormon identity.” In making this argument, he seems to echo Samuel W. Taylor’s 46-year-old claim that Mormon literature is the captive of “positive-thinkers,” or public-relations-minded Mormons who police their people’s output for the sake of pleasing and appeasing public opinion. He also suggests—taking a cue, perhaps, from Nephi Anderson’s account of the artist in Zion—that Mormons need to do a better job of being a community that cares for (and about) its artists—including artists whose works are neither nationally recognized nor compatible with the ideology and aesthetics of “positive-thinking” Mormons.  
Overall, I agree with Handley’s assessment of the present state of Mormon literature (if not his conclusions) as much as I regret that Oppenheimer’s article was not more broadly informed about Mormon literature. (Setting aside the Terry Tempest Williams faux-pas, the problem of Oppenheimer’s article boils down to the issue of sources.)  Still, I challenge the assumption—apparent in both pieces—that Mormon literature is somehow underachieving. True, Mormons have not, as Oppenheimer suggests, produced a Milton, Milosz, or Munro—but they have produced an Anderson, Sorenson, Scowcroft, Peterson, Udall, and Peck. Is this not an achievement—indeed, an over-achievement compared to communities with similar backgrounds? Moreover, I wonder if the cultural flaws Handley identifies as Mormon literature’s chief stumbling blocks are not in reality the source of its strength—the resistance against which it pushes and hones its muscles. After all, were it not for the triumphalist rhetoric, the thirst for vindication, the narrow view of Mormon identity, and the “positive-thinkers” of Mormonism, Mormon writers could not not have written iconic and iconoclastic books like Dorian, The Evening and the Morning, The Backslider, and The Scholar of Moab. Nor could Mormon writers have filled the pages of Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, Fire in the PastureMonsters and Mormons, and Saints on Stage. The truth is, Mormon writers need these cultural flaws—these walls of resistance—to make the utopian critique that is so crucial to what’s Mormon about Mormon literature.
Personally, I am not worried about the past, present, or future of Mormon literature. Having spent the better part of the past three years with Mormon literature, I know its weaknesses as well as its strengths. Give it time. Let it temper in the refining fire of cultural flaws. It has done well for itself over the last one hundred and eighty-three years. And it will continue to do so as long as Mormon writers keep at it and don’t let the hand-wringers discourage them. Setbacks, like the recent demise of Irreantum, will slow the momentum at times, but they will not kill it. Like the Church itself, Mormon literature has survived assimilation, correlation, and a host of other paradigm shifts. If Mormonism and its cultural flaws can produce the likes of The Backslider and The Scholar of Moab in a period of twenty-five years, why should we not expect them to do the same, with even better results, in the seventeen years remaining till the bicentennial? And why should we not expect them to continue informing great Mormon literature for another two hundred or five hundred or a thousand years?
What I’ve read of Mormon literature, what I know about Mormonism and Mormon writers, gives me nothing but a “sunny outlook” on its future.

Dissertation Musings: African-, Jewish-, and Mormon-American Literatures

From Catherine Rottenberg’s Performing Americanness: Race, Class, and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature. (Dartmouth CP, 2008):

“The fascination with the novels produced by the emergent African-American middle class and the newly arrived Jewish immigrants, two groups locate on the periphery of US society during the Progressive Era and Harlem Renaissance, seems to persist because these literary text raise questions about what it means to be American with particular force. The narratives not only confront the topical issues of gender, race, class, and ethnicity with important insight, but they also address marginalization and social stratification with an urgency difficult to ignore.” (1)

Can we (and should we) not say the same about Mormon fiction in the early twentieth century?

I think one important work Mormon literature scholars can do is situate early twentieth-century Mormon literature within this group of marginal/ized American writers.

Also:

“Not only did these two minority literatures [i.e. African- and Jewish-American literatures] undergo a transformation at around the same time, but both the African- and the Jewish-American fiction produced at the turn of the last century describe the rapidly changing historical landscapes and highlight how such changes created and stimulated certain conflicts vis-a-vis notions of Americanness. This literature is acutely aware of the liminal positions of African and Jewish Americans at the time; and quite a few of the novels dramatize the ways that these minority groups attempted to move from margin to center by carving our a niche for themselves in mainstream U.S. society as well as the mechanisms by and through which these groups were excluded from sites of power.” (3)

Again, can we not say the same thing about the works of Nephi Anderson, Susa Young Gates, and Josephine Spencer?

Where was this book a year ago when I was writing about early twentieth-century Mormon fiction?

Six Questions for Aleesa Sutton, Author of Diary of a Single Mormon Female

Last month I had the opportunity to review Aleesa Sutton’s Diary of a Single Mormon Female for Modern Mormon Men. (Read the review here!) In conjunction with that review, I sent Aleesa a series of questions about her book. Here are the answers I got back…

SH: Tell a little bit about Diary of a Single Mormon Female?
AS: Having been primed for my “happily ever after” since I was a teenager, I never expected to still be single at age 32. Diary of a Single Mormon Female is a humorous and candid look at my mostly ill-fated efforts to find the man of my dreams, featuring pages, photos and handwritten notes from my journals. Those excerpts detail encounters with scripture juggling, a virtual albino Chinese teenager, chastity lines, the virgin lips club, Brazilians (not that kind), a pink flamingo date messenger, an open-minded parrot, a Swiss lumberjack, Icelandic Mormons, a marriage flowchart and dozens of awkward conversations. Diary is also a serious story about longing, the challenges of being single in a church focused on marriage and family and my desire to reconcile my religious beliefs with my reality.
SH: How did the book itself take shape? At what point did you realize that your diaries–or parts of your diaries–might be interesting or entertaining or helpful to someone else? 
AS: The book was born out of a crisis. Looking for a fresh start, I’d moved to Italy the year I turned 30. I met a sweet and great-looking Mormon man and thought I’d finally found the one . . . but the relationship crashed and burned. Just like every other one, it seemed. I felt overwhelmed by hopelessness and despair. Yet another romantic failure, and I kept getting older. What could I possibly change? I decided to take another look at the relationships I’d had in hopes of making some sense of it all. I’d kept dozens of journals over the years, so the stories were already there. I found humour: my diaries were full of awkward conversations and embarrassing experiences. I found pain. And I knew I wanted to tell my story, because it might help someone else understand their story better, too.
SH: I imagine that publishing a journal or a diary can be a nerve-wracking thing because it throws the doors to your inner life way open. Was that the case? Did you ever worry–or do you worry–about what the book might reveal about you–especially at the end when you are very honest about the spiritual toll single Mormon life has taken on you?  
AS: Oh, absolutely. I asked myself a lot of times whether I really, truly wanted to publish so much deeply personal material. I didn’t take lightly the descriptions of the people in my life, either. There were some friends who thought it was a very bad idea and tried to talk me out of it. But I thought about the stories that have inspired me, and they’re not, some bad things happened and then everything got better. They are, here’s exactly what happened, here’s what totally sucked, and here’s how I got through it. That, to me, is what’s inspiring, because it’s authentic. There’s a paradox: the more personal a story is, the more universally relatable it is.
SH: As you were getting the book ready, who did you see as your primary audience? How did that affect what parts of your diary made the final cut, and what parts didn’t. I mean, I assume Diary of a Single Mormon Female is a trimmed down version of the original, right?
AS: I actually had three different audiences in mind. I wrote to Mormons as a whole, in hopes of increasing awareness and understanding of the unique challenges their single members face, as well as help develop more nuanced and positive discussions about celibacy. I wrote to a more general audience, in hopes that Diary will shed some light on a religion and culture that is often misunderstood. And, most importantly, I wrote to those who have ever longed for a dream that hasn’t come true yet, because I wanted them to know: you are not alone. 
SH: What advice would you give aspiring Mormon writers? How would you encourage them to tell their stories?
AS: Realize that your faith tradition has probably shaped you in unique ways. Trust your voice and your perspective. What are the stories that have moved and inspired you, and how did they do it? Incorporate those techniques into your writing. And don’t wait until the mood strikes you to write! Sit down and do it every day. This is what will make you a good writer.
SH: Now that you have published Diary of a Single Mormon Female, do you have plans for another book project? What in the future for the Single Mormon Female?

AS: I do have some other projects in mind. I’m interested in exploring the experiences of other marginalized populations within Mormonism. And of course, I hope to one day write a sequel: Diary of a Married Mormon Female!

"The Mechanics of Creation": New Flash Fiction on Wilderness Interface Zone

My short-short story “The Mechanics of Creation” is up today on Wilderness Interface Zone. I originally wrote it for the Four Centuries contest last year. It has undergone some slight changes since then.  

If you have two minutes to spare, drop by and read it. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only fictional representation of Joseph Fielding Smith changing a flat tire.

Nephi Anderson also has a part in the story.

I hope you like it.