Review: A Few Good Mormon Novels

3.21.12 | | 2 comments

So there’s several Mormon novels I read that I kept meaning to review, but never got around to it. They were there in the back of my head, screaming at me, “Tell the world about us!” I looked compassionately at those great works of art and said, “Okay, I have a duty to you for making my life that much better. Okay.” So these are going to be fast and dirty, but they’ll be better than the guilty silence that has waited impatiently the past several years. So here’s a handful of some of the best Mormon Literature that I have come across the last several years:

Pictograph MurdersTHE PICTOGRAPH MURDERS

by P.G. Karamasines

Written by AMV’s very own Patricia Karasamines, this novel still has left a very vivid impression on me, despite the fact that it’s been probably six or seven years since I read it. It’s the story of Alex McKelvey, a Mormon convert who participates in a BYU sponsored archaeology dig in Southern Utah. Alex is a English/folklore student at the Y and a naturalist, so although she isn’t actually studying archaeology, her interest in the Southwest and the myths and culture of the Native Americans makes her interest in participating in the dig more than believable. At the dig, a disappearance and possible murder occurs, which leads us into an intriguing plot involving the possible involvement of mythological figures, culture clashes, and a tight, interesting thriller plot.

The characters in the novel were well drawn and intriguing, especially Alex (and, interestingly enough, her Siberian husky Kit), as well as the portrayal of the Native American mythological figure Coyote. Character driven in a magical realism setting, this was an achingly beautiful novel, despite masquerading as a thriller. The evocative language Karamesines uses, especially when describing Southern Utah’s emotional beauty or  using her archetypal brush to paint new visions on Native American mythology. Being a lover of mythology, cultural exchange, and poetic prose, this book was right up my alley. Beautifully written, intelligently plotted, and deeply satisfying, I would heartily recommend The Pictograph Murders to nearly anyone.

ON THE ROAD TO HEAVEN

by Coke Newell

A lot has already been said about this award winning autobiographical novel, so I’ll keep my comments brief, but I wanted to join the chorus of those who have praised this book. I haven’t read any Jack Kerouac, so I can’t speak to the many comparisons people have made of this novel to Kerouac’s work, but I can say on a personal level that I found this novel to be wonderfully outside of the box and engaging.   And knowing that it was pretty much based on Newell’s life made it all the more fascinating.

Diving into this story of Kit West, a living off the land, vegetarian, Thoreau-like naturalist, was great fun and gave plenty of opportunities for philosophical and spiritual introspection. Kit’s conversion to the LDS faith followed a very non-traditional route that I found refreshing. It was kind of like the new “I’m a Mormon” commercials, where you get to see non-traditional Mormons who break stereotypes, but who are nevertheless very strong in the faith.

The one moment that was a difficult transition for me was when the book transferred from its conversion narrative to its missionary narrative. I actually put down the book for a few weeks at this point, because I had a hard time garnering the interest in the second plot that I had in the first one. However, once I was able to really get back into the novel, I found that the missionary plot, although not the equal of the first because of its scattered focus (it’s hard to write a missionary narrative otherwise, considering the constant travel and location changes a missionary goes through), was still a very engaging and fascinating look into Colombian culture and spirituality. The constant thread through both narratives, of course, was the love story between Kit and Annie, which was sweet, sincere and gentle. A beautiful line through an already intriguing tapestry.

This novel deserves all the awards and accolades it’s been adorned with and was one of the major novels that cemented Zarahemla Books well deserved reputation for publishing quality Mormon literature.

SALVADOR

by Margaret Blair Young

After reading Margaret Blair Young’s Standing Upon the Promises series and Salvadorseeing her related play I Am Jane, I was hungry for more of her material. So I ordered an old used copy of one of her early, award winning, and now out of print novels, Salvador. How glad I am that I sought it out! This book was a real treasure of a find.

In the process of a messy and psychologically scarring divorce, our sympathetic and intriguing protagonist Julie goes to El Salvador with her mother (a hilarious, yet compelling character) and father (a tragic and intriguing character) and retreats to El Salvador to visit Julie’s Uncle Johnny (a very complex character). There Uncle Johnny is striving to set up his own version of Zion. All is not as it first appears, however, as plot twists abound, stunning character revelations shatter preconceptions and a complex web of relationships is weaved.

The story is highly character driven, resulting in some breath taking moments where events take dramatic turns and unpredictability is delicately created. Young uses evocative and beautiful language, and explores some complex and sophisticated questions regarding Mormon spirituality, theology and morality. It’s a stunning novel, one that cemented a suspicion that I already had– Margaret Blair Young is one of the Church’s best writers.

I highly recommend all three of the above novels. There. I have done my duty to the Muses of Mormon Literature. Now maybe they will leave me alone.

2 comments: “Review: A Few Good Mormon Novels

  1. Patricia K

    Thank you for the lovely review, Mahonri.

    FWIW, I had a similar response to the mid-narrative shift in On the Road to Heaven that you report having. The sort of tension that interests me seemed to suddenly evaporate. But I still liked the novel.

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