Tag Archives: Mormon Literature

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

James Goldberg’s Let Me Drown with Moses: A Review

Mormon poetry has always been invested in history. The earliest Mormon poems, for example, argued for Mormonism’s place in the grand narrative of Israel. Later poems, fashioned in less apocalyptic times, sought meaning in Mormonism’s nineteenth-century struggle against the land, the world, and its own idealistic ambitions.

The poems in James Goldberg’s Let Me Drown with Moses take both approaches to Mormonism and history. Organized into seven sections, each with its own thematic concerns, the collection is a kind of composite of Mormon historical and mythic remembrance. Frontloaded with biblical imagery, it reaches back to the New Testament with its first poem, “The Kingdom of God,” which echoes the parable of the great banquet:

The Kingdom of God

Is not the feast. It’s the cry that goes out

and echoes through the streets that you

and I and all the beggars have been summoned

tonight to the sovereign’s table.

Like The Five Books of Jesus, Goldberg’s fictional retelling of the Gospels, this introductory poem asks readers to set aside what they know about the Kingdom of God and indulge in an exercise in devotional imagination. We are to set aside what we think we know for a chance to see the familiar with fresh eyes.

The second poem follows this track, reaching further back in time, imagining a pivotal moment from the Exodus story, when Moses is midway through the Red Sea, but his deliverance from Egypt still remains uncertain:

If these walls of water fall, O Lord,

let me drown with Moses.

Yes, let me die with the same fire in my eyes

Moses saw in a desert bush.

Titled “Prayer on the Red Sea Shore,” the poem gives the collections its title and serves as a kind of statement of purpose and allegiance. Like those who followed Moses between the “walls of water,” the collection casts its voice on the side of Moses. It is an act of literary faith that responds to the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” Matthew Arnold describes in his classic “Dover Beach.”

Continue reading James Goldberg’s Let Me Drown with Moses: A Review

More on Faithful Realism and the Problem with Classification

Recently, I’ve had a few people ask me to clarify my understanding of “Faithful Realism.” Here are some of my thoughts on the term:

As a classification of Mormon literature, “Faithful Realism” came into vogue in the late twentieth century. Both Eugene England and Richard Cracroft used the term to describe Mormon fiction that placed a greater emphasis on depicting the concrete world, rather than supernatural experience, while approaching and presenting Mormonism from an essentially “faithful” perspective. They did so to set contemporary literary efforts apart from the earlier works of the “Lost Generation” of Mormon writers, like Vardis Fisher and Virginia Sorensen, whose writings arguably conveyed a less-faithful (or “lost”) perspective.

The more experience I get with “Faithful Realism,” though, the more uncomfortable I am with the term. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I disagree with the practice of classifying Mormon writers and works by the degree of testimony they espouse—or seem to espouse—because doing so asks us to privilege one approach to Mormon belief over another and draw firmer lines than are necessary and desirable between the works of writers who are practicing Mormons, cultural Mormons, and all the other kinds of Mormons in between. One reason I like the term “Home Literature” over other classifiers is that, despite its historical associations with missionary work and Mormon propaganda, is the way it posits Mormonism as a home writers write from and to. Both “Lost Generation” and “Faithful Realism,” however, suggest a kind of fall and redemption of Mormon literary output—leading the reader and critic to approach them as such at the expense of richer, more nuanced readings.

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Ready to Harvest: A Q&A with William Morris about “Dark Watch and Other Mormon American Stories”

NOTE: I recently posted a shorter version of this Q&A on Modern Mormon MenHere now is the Q&A in full. Most of the new stuff you’ll find about two-thirds of the way down.–SH

Tell us about Dark Watch and Other Mormon-American Stories. What’s the genesis of the project? How long have you been working on this collection? 

A little over two years ago, I realized that I had enough stories that had been published in Mormon journals plus others that I had completed or would soon complete to make a collection of my Mormon-themed short fiction. At the time I had focused my writing more on (not-Mormon-themed) science fiction and fantasy, and this felt like a good project to serve as a coda to my work in the MoLit field. Wrap up in a neat package, put a bow on it and move on. I was interested enough in the idea to come up with a cover concept for it and then it sat for awhile until I finally convinced two family members who have professional-level editing experience to copyedit and from there it was simply a matter of creating the ebook files and setting up the accounts for Amazon, Nook, Kobo, etc.

And, as it turned out, in the process of putting the collection together, I found myself re-engaging with the issues and imagery and experiences that had caused me to write the stories in the first place, and so as much as I enjoy writing science fiction and fantasy aimed at the mainstream market and will continue to explore that part of my creative live, I’m actually not yet done with Mormon literature. I now look at it less as the end of my engagement with the field and more like the beginning of a new phase.

It’s interesting that you call your stories “Mormon-American.” What does that term–or label–mean to you and your fiction?  Continue reading Ready to Harvest: A Q&A with William Morris about “Dark Watch and Other Mormon American Stories”

Learning to “linger with the givenness of the present moment”: A Review of A Song for Issy Bradley

A surprising number of Mormon novels came out in 2014, but none of them seemed to receive as much attention as Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley. Admittedly, when I first learned about the novel, I yawned. Jenn Ashworth’s The Friday Gospels had just given us a novel about a dysfunctional Mormon family in the United Kingdom, so nothing about Issy Bradley seemed all that original. For this reason, perhaps, I took my time getting to the novel—a delay I now regret. While A Song for Issy Bradley is not the One Mighty and Strong Novel avid #MormonLit watchers are waiting for, it is an impressive addition to a growing list of well-written and finely-crafted twenty-first century Mormon novels.

A Song for Issy Bradley takes place within a small Mormon community in Southport, a coastal town in the United Kingdom. Its main characters, the Bradleys, are a typical LDS family with too many obligations and hardly any time to fulfill them. When the novel opens, their home is on the brink of bedlam. It is seven-year-old Jacob’s birthday, and his friends from school are coming over for a party. Ian, the family patriarch and ward bishop, is on his way out the door to tend to a chronically-needy ward member. This makes the morning more stressful for Claire, his wife, who feels the burden of her husband’s calling and struggles to meet cultural pressures that ask her “to make a willing sacrifice” of his presence (28). Ian, after all, is the kind of bishop who can’t refuse a petitioner. Although he has difficulty discerning the Spirit in his work, he tries to do everything by the book—literally, the Handbook of Instructions—and be there for people as “Jesus would do if he were here” (44). Unfortunately, that often means not being there for his own family, which frustrates Claire, a convert, who tends to be less rigid in her Mormon practice and belief.

Rounding out the Bradley family are their four children—Zippy, Alma, Jacob, and Issy—each named for characters in scripture.[i] Zippy, a teenager, is adrift in a sea of kitschy chastity object lessons and tactless admonitions to dress modestly. Alma, a deacon, is a rebel who would rather play soccer than pass the sacrament. Jacob, the seven-year-old, is a firm believer in the mystical world of the primary manual. And Issy, the youngest daughter, is the object of everyone’s love. She is the glue the holds them together.

Continue reading Learning to “linger with the givenness of the present moment”: A Review of A Song for Issy Bradley

On Eliza R. Snow’s “To the Writers of Fiction”

Yesterday, as I was finishing my latest Enid comic, I came across Eliza R. Snow’s poem “To the Writers of Fiction,” which I had somehow missed while writing my dissertation. How this oversight happened is beyond me, and I only wish now that I had known about it nine months ago. It would have fit perfectly in the introduction–and maybe have provided a nice epigraph for the entire book. When I revise and publish it, I’m definitely finding a place for the poem.

Here it is in its entirety:

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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?