BOOK REVIEW: “Brother Brigham” by D. Michael Martindale

11.14.06 | | 13 comments

Brother Brigham, a supernatural thriller by D. Michael Martindale, is one of Zarahemla Books flagship titles for the year (in fact, one of its first titles). It is a book whose title I have heard bandied about for quite some time, had even read a segment of it which Martindale had put a teaser on the internet, but the novel seemed to be having a hard time finding a publisher to give it a home. And I can see why. It certainly has what I would deem very mature material, espcially for an LDS novel. A good deal of sexual material, a scene of Satan worship, drug use, spiritual possession, polygamy– yeah, it’s not going to be on the top of Deseret Book or Covenant’s acquisition list.

Fortunately, the newly christened Zarahemla Books, under their commitment to publish “adventurous” Mormon fiction, has taken a chance upon this book, to test whether there is a significant audience for daring Mormon fiction. Martindale certainly pushed my own sensibilities beyond a few limits. I didn’t mind that there was mature material, but I did think it could have been toned down a bit– sometimes a little too much detail for my taste. However, that being said, in the novel there is always a reason for vices to be included– ironcially, almost always a moral reason. Evil is never presented as good, and for every wrong decision a character makes, there are consequences– severe consequences. In many ways the novel is a morality tale. A warning against sin. Yet don’t expect some syrupy, cliched piece of propaganda here. It is skillfully written, creating a realistic, complex, difficult world where everything is not as it initially seems. It’s a page turner, the novel is a real heavy weight. Brother Brigham is a significant, thought provoking, faith affirming, intelligently written novel.

The plot revolves around the supernatural experiences of one C.H. Young and other significant people in his life, including his wife Danielle, his co-worker Shiela and the Young’s babysitter Cindy. The inciting incident which drives the story is a visitation from what appears to be C.H.’s ancestor Brigham Young. This spirit has what seems to be a revolutionary message: Because the current LDS prophet has denied a revelation from God, C.H. will by some miraculous means replace the prophet and re-institute the long abandoned principle of polygamy. This same “Brother Brigham” appears to C.H.’s wife Dani and others, setting off a chain of events that reaches a tense, dramatic climax.

One of the powerful (and frightening) aspects of the novel, is its sheer plausibility within a Mormon framework. Our history is filled with supernatural tales, representing both good and evil. And many of us have had more than our fair share of the real deal– whether with light filled spirituality, or harrowing encounters with the Adversary’s forces. This novel, although technically “speculative fiction,” has at its core what are, for many Mormons and other religious folk, rock hard realities. They are not too far off from experiences many of its readers have encountered themselves.

And that is one of Marindale’s greatest strengths and one of his greatest weaknesses: he creates a completely real, plausible world. His novel abounds with actual places which will be familiar to those who live in Utah, realistic dialogue and experiences derived from real life. For the most part, this is very effective. At a couple of times, however, near the beginning of the novel, it was becoming a little too real– a little too boring. Martindale would go into a good amount of detail about buying a mini-van, about a character’s reading habits, etc. These details could have been presented with more brevity and then moved on to events that make the novel so exciting. I don’t mind a solid use good description. In fact, I would have loved if Martindale could have embellished the story with more artful language, but Martindale seems to adhere to the Orson Scott Card school of thought about transparent prose (which, especially for a story like this, is a perfectly legitimate choice). But a novel or any dramatic story presents the highlights, and some details are meants to be glossed over, or the dramatic tension becomes flat.

However, these are small criticisms. For the most part, Martindale’s choice of making the story as “real” as possible, highlights the supernatural elements of the story and, in the process, makes the supernatural a perfectly plausible aspect in the lives of common people. It takes the “speculative” out of speculative fiction and places it squarely in the realm of possibility.
There is a great deal said in the novel about the principle of revelation, about what it is– and especially about what it isn’t. And there is what appears to be a good amount of orthodoxy in regards to the LDS Church. Unlike some other “Mormon” fiction that continually tries to belittle the efforts of many of the good hearted men and women in the Mormon hierarachy, whether it be apostles or Relief Society presidents, this book highlights what happens when men and women try to become a law unto themselves, bypassing spiritual authority. For example, instead of portraying a Bishop as some sort of two dimensional hypocrite (as many disillusioned Mormon writers relish in doing), he becomes a realistic character, even at one vital point a heroic character. This was a little surprising, especially coming from such what at other times could be considered such an “edgy” novel. The blend of the best of “conservative” and “liberal” thought made the book very balanced, in many senses very moral.

I don’t think that this is a book for everyone. There is a very select audience which will be able to handle both its earthy realism and its moral, orthodox center. However, in that way, it hits directly upon Zarahemla Book’s mission: to provide reading for those who are not satisfied with either extreme of Mormon publishing. It is neither sugar coated, nor does it attack the LDS faith. More than anything, it takes that faith seriously. Seriously enough to place it in the real world around us, making the religion a real, dynamic, thriving, even dramatic presence.

This novel and other Zarahemla Books can be purchased at www.zarahemlabooks.com.

13 comments: “BOOK REVIEW: “Brother Brigham” by D. Michael Martindale

  1. C. L. Hanson

    I agree that some of the elaborate detail in the beginning got to the point of being boring. However, I felt like it actually kind of worked in this piece.

    To make sense of the stranger things that happen in the novel, it helps to see how boring and tedious C.H.’s daily grind and future prospects are.

    The scene where they purchase the mini-van is a good example. The elaborate detail helps the reader to feel how much C. H. appreciates simple things that have been denied him in his humble lifestyle, beginning with innocent desires like being able to provide nice things for his family.

  2. Mahonri Stewart

    C.L.,
    I can certainly see why D. Michael put in the mundane details– like you said, it illucidates why he would want his life to become something more extraordinary. But once I hit those parts of the book, my reading of it slowed down, and often when I hit such a point in a book, I put it down to read again later, but never get back to it. Fortunately, I persevered and was rewarded, but others might not and that would be a shame, especially considering for the tension the book hits later.
    I think it was important to include the mundane details, just not in so much– detail.

  3. Preston McConkie

    I enjoyed the details about the van a great deal, but largely because I sympathise so much since I’ve never been able to buy a new vehicle. For that reason it was a sympathetic adventure.

    The O.S. Card worship stuff didn’t grab me as much.

  4. William Morris

    I resisted reading this review until I had finished the novel.

    What’s funny is I was writing a review in my head as I read and I ended up with a paragraph on style that’s very much like what Mahonri writes above (including pointing towards OSC and the use of the term “transparent style”). Not surprising at all, but still funny.

    Overall I agree with the review. I didn’t find the mundane details quite as annoying.

    I do think there should have been a bit more to the ending; and although I agree with what Mahonri says about the bishop, I do wish that there was two or three more scenes with him to flesh him out as a fully-realized character just a bit more.

  5. Mahonri Stewart

    I think a more fleshed out bishop would have been very nice as well, William. For the vital function that he performs, I think it would have been nice to know him better.

  6. C. L. Hanson

    True, it would have been nice to have gotten to know the bishop better before his role in the closing scenes!

    On the other hand, I felt like the detective’s extended internal discussion of his opinion of living in Utah was kind of irrelevant since since he ended up playing a rather impersonal role. His character and opinions were very plausible, yet it might have been more interesting save these ideas and expose them through actions and dialogs in a novel where his character is more developed. (a sequel maybe? ;) )

    Also — for those who have read the book — I felt like the drug scene near the end with the second wife and Moroni was kind of bizarre and confusing. I spent a lot of time contemplating why the author included this strange scene, and the only thing I could come up with was that it was just that everything was going crazy.

    Maybe it would have made more sense if I knew something about the drug culture? Anybody else confused by this scene, or is it just me?

  7. William Morris

    I re-read it and think I get where Michael was going with it, but I agree that it was a bit confusing — and it was a bit too abrupt of an end for Sheila (I think that was her name). I felt she deserved a bit of denouement.

  8. Stephen Carter

    I’m glad you all read Brother Brigham because I’ve been wanting to say this.

    Official Spoiler Alert.

    Though there was a lot I liked about Brother Brigham, and D. Michael should be very proud that he wrote it, I personally was disappointed with the novel’s ending. It didn’t deliver the goods it promised.

    As far as I could tell from the story’s structure, the book ended at the end of the second act without bringing us through the third.

    See, the difficulties that are mounting up against CH are mainly difficulties with his relationship with his wife. The revelations are only the vehicle to move the story along. Their relationship deteriorates until the second to last chapter of the book. And suddenly they’re in a counselor’s office making up.

    That ending does not satisfy the values D. Michael built up throughout the book. We have a real mess on our hands at the second to last chapter. There’s all kinds of police involvement, nothing but bitterness exists between CH and his wife. Sheila hasn’t actually been removed from the picture. All kinds of spiritual damage has taken place. The too-young-to-marry Cyndy admits to the police that she married CH. The list goes on. A perfect set up for the third act.

    The way D. Michael led us up to this point promised that the main character would find a way through the problems (the definition of the third act) and that we’d get to watch him do it. I was really looking forward to that. But it didn’t happen. Instead we were sidetracked by a demon possession, which rendered CH unable to complete his character arc.

    Demonic possession is not what D. Michael led us to be concerned about. He led us to be concerned about the people. And they never got a chance to show their real stuff. No third act.

    I think one of the main reasons this happened was because the story considered everything CH and his wife had gone through, all the emotional and spiritual work they did to align themselves with what they thought was true (I really enjoyed this part of the book, watching them struggle so much) was all for naught. The commandment came from the devil, therefore all the work they did had no redeeming value. At least, that’s what the last chapter led me to believe. I saw people who were trying to jettison their past actions. They didn’t seem to be allowed to gain any wisdom from their experience.

    I think the novel would have been much more compelling if D. Michael had been willing to let the story’s value system be more complicated. The book espouses a very black and white worldview. It’s either of God or the Devil. And everything that comes from the Devil is worthless and damaging.

    All those provocative threads D. Michael threw out about CH trying to learn to love on a larger scale, about his wife learning to love him in a different way, or making little steps toward more independence – those were really interesting. And they were what made up the bulk of the book. I was prepared to watch these people grow. But it all just came down.

    So I guess this is kind of a compliment/rebuke. Most of the book really enthralled me, but the ending was so disappointing.

    I think, though, that Brother Brigham deserves a large audience. It’s a great step in the right direction for Mormon literature, and I hope it sells well.

  9. Preston McConkie

    Re: “It’s either of God or the Devil. And everything that comes from the Devil is worthless and damaging.”

    Isn’t that true, though?

  10. C. L. Hanson

    To Stepher Carter:

    That’s a fascinating insight I hadn’t even considered.

    In this novel I was really impressed with the way the author set it up so that the reader is thinking “This is very strange and difficult, but doing what’s expected of you is sometimes that way…” while gradually building the question of “Is this really right? What is going on here?”

    I hadn’t really thought about the idea that maybe it should be more than just “this is 100% right” or “this is 100% wrong” and especially that he should have dealt with his complex relationship issues in a more serious manner.

    Food for thought…

  11. Stephen Carter

    Re: “It’s either of God or the Devil. And everything that comes from the Devil is worthless and damaging.”

    Preston asked:

    Isn’t that true, though?

    I reply:

    Not in my worldview. I don’t believe there are two pure sources, one of construction and one of destruction. I believe in a universe populated by beings that have different goals. Those goals affect people’s lives in different ways, sometimes making things better, sometimes making things worse. Depending on your point of view.

    Notice that often it is our flaws and sins (supposedly completely destructive and of the devil) that put us in position to understand our fellows better and become more empathetic people.

    If God and the Devil exist. I think they’ll be just as complicated as a normal human being. Otherwise, they have no agency, they’re controlled by something else.

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