Author Archives: Scott Hales

Mormon Sons and Mothers: A Review of Douglas Thayer’s Will Wonders Never Cease

11.17.14 | | 8 comments

Loyal readers of Douglas Thayer’s fiction will not be surprised—at least initially—by his latest novel, Will Wonders Never Cease: A Hopeful Novel for Mormon Mothers and Their Teenage Sons (Zarahemla Books, 2014). For the last half-century, Thayer has been writing stories about young Mormon men, still naïve in the faith, whose battles with wilderness and human nature leave them emotionally and physically scarred, yet also hopeful and spiritually more mature. His protagonists are not the guilt-drenched youths of Levi Peterson’s fiction, whose forbidden experiments with sin and sex leave them feeling acutely the classic division between body and spirit. Instead, they are sensitive, righteous young men who take beating after beating from a world where God observes more than he intervenes. Thayer’s protagonists are acquainted with death, cruelty, and injustice. If anything redeems them, makes them willing to hope, it is their awakening to grace and the strong influence of their mothers.

Of course, it is easy to overlook the influence of mothers in Thayer’s fiction. Thayer, like Cormac McCarthy or Ernest Hemingway, is not known for writing strong female characters—not because his work doesn’t have them, but because the testosterone level in his stories has a tendency to overwhelm the narrative to the point of muffling (though never silencing) female voices. This is certainly true in the three novels that precede Will Wonders Never CeaseSummer Fire (1983), The Conversion of Jeff Williams (2003), and The Tree House (2009)—each of which has a significant female character who occupies the role usually given to a sage old man in most storytelling traditions. These female characters are uniformly motherly and wise to the ways and wiles of the world. They are frank and intelligent, always ready with advice and counsel, and deeply caring. Moreover, so much of what they do is to compensate for the adult men in the novels, whose physical ailments, spiritually immaturity, and emotional stuntedness make them little more than cautionary tales for the young protagonists. Still, despite the overwhelming influence these female characters have, as well as the crucial role they play in each narrative, they never seem to take center stage in the reader’s mind.

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A Fifteen-Week Reading Course in the Mormon Novel

9.9.14 | | 12 comments

As I’ve been thinking about Tyler’s proposed online Mormon literature course(s), I’ve assembled my ideal schedule for a fifteen week reading course on the Mormon novel that could be shortened to ten weeks as needed. I’ve also included alternate texts that cover the same ground historically but focus on different themes and aesthetic approaches.

The schedule is a work in progress, but it seeks to cover as much ground as possible with works that–in my opinion–represent more or less what was happening (or not happening) in Mormon fiction at the time of their publication.

You’ll notice that I have generally left “genre” titles off the list. I did this not to be controversial, but rather to focus on a narrower understanding of the Mormon novel and show an evolution of approaches for portraying lived Mormon experiences. In some cases, I’ve also privileged more influential or historically significant books over better books from the same era as a way to give students a kind of fluency with texts that have had an impact on developments within the Mormon novel form. As a teacher, though, I’d encourage my students to read the alternate texts as well, either along with the primary texts or as an additional reading course.

Week One: Corianton by B. H. Roberts (serialized version)

Alternate: Hephzibah by Emmeline B. Wells

Week Two: Added Upon by Nephi Anderson

Alternate: John Stevens’ Courtship by Susa Young Gates

Week Three: Dorian by Nephi Anderson

Alternate: The Castle Builder or Piney Ridge Cottage by Nephi Anderson

Week Four: The Evening and the Morning by Virginia Sorensen

Alternate: The Giant Joshua by Maurine Whipple

Week Five: The Ordeal of Dudley Dean by Richard Scowcroft

Alternate: For Time and All Eternity by Paul Bailey

Week Six: Charley by Jack Weyland

Alternate: Charlie’s Monument by Blaine Yorgason

Week Seven: Summer Fire by Douglas Thayer

Alternate: Saints by Orson Scott Card

Week Eight: The Backslider by Levi S. Peterson

Alternate: ???

Week Nine: Sideways to the Sun by Linda Sillitoe

Alternate: Secrets Keep by Linda Sillitoe

Week Ten: And the Desert Shall Blossom by Phyllis Barber

Alternate: Pillar of Light by Gerald N. Lund

Week Eleven: Salvador by Margaret Blair Young

Alternate: Beyond the River by Michael Fillerup or Aspen Marooney by Levi S. Peterson

Week Twelve: The Angel of the Danube by Alan Rex Mitchell

Alternate: Falling toward Heaven by John Bennion

Week Thirteen: Rift by Robert Todd Petersen

Alternate: The Conversion of Jeff Williams by Douglas Thayer

Week Fourteen: Bound on Earth by Angela Hallstrom

Alternate: The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth or A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

Week Fifteen: The Scholar of Moab by Steven L. Peck

Alternate: Byuck by Theric Jepson

 

Guest Post: D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints: An Irreantum Review

5.29.14 | | 3 comments

Before Irreantum folded, I’d recruited a few people to write book reviews for what I thought would be the last issue. Among the reviewers was Emily Harris Adams, winner of the 2013 Mormon Lit Blitz. Emily was given the assignment to review D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints, a Mormon steampunk novel that was originally serialized and published through Amazon. After Irreantum‘s no-more-ness became manifest, Emily contacted me and asked what to do with her complimentary (i.e. FREE!) review copy. I told her to keep it and forget about the review. Not wanting the book to go to waste, though, she wrote the review anyway and sent it to me to post on A Motley Vision.

So, in memory of Irreantum, I post Emily’s review…with hope that the journal will find a new beginning sometime soon.

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After reading City of the Saints, I couldn’t quite figure out a succinct way to describe the overarching, grand picture of what I had just mentally ingested. Not until I ran into Dave Butler himself.  When he asked me what I thought of his book, I said,

“It’s history cake, isn’t it?”

And it is. There’s an unabashed reveling in the historical yumminess.

This book isn’t history candy. If you are looking for something enjoyable but without density, a fun read that happens to take place in a historical setting, turn your handcart around because this is not the right place. This story is rich and indulgent but still substantive. In other words: cake.

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Sunstone Kirtland and The Garden of Enid

5.14.14 | | 4 comments

AMVLast weekend I had the chance to attend this year’s regional Sunstone Symposium in Kirtland. I initially had not planned to attend, but after I published three cartoons in the recent issue of Sunstone, the director of the symposium invited me to give a presentation on The Garden of Enid. I gladly accepted.

Kirtland is four hours northeast of my home. Travelling with limited funds, I left at 4:30 in the morning and drove non-stop to the Stannard Stone Quarry in Chapin Forest Reservation, where the early Saints quarried stone for the temple, just two miles south of Kirtland. I had an hour to wait before the symposium, so I grabbed my camera and took a mile-long trail through the forest, hoping to see something neat—like a rock formation. The trail was all trees and moss, however, until I found the quarry itself in a creek a few muddy steps off the beaten path. A few years back, the Church and the local government had put up signage and built a wooden walkway over the creek—perhaps to prevent visitors from climbing down into the creek itself, as I was doing, to get a better view of the chisel marks in the algae-covered stone.

After snapping more pictures than I’ll ever need of the quarry, I hiked back to my car and drove to the Community of Christ’s Kirtland Temple Visitor’s Center, the conference venue, where I picked up my name tag and pocketed a few free copies of Sunstone and an old collection of Mormon cartoons by Calvin Grondahl. From there I headed to the main classroom to wait for the conference keynote address to begin and feel guilty about not making better small talk with strangers.

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The New Mormon Fiction: Post-Faithful Directions of a Post-Utopian Form–Scott’s 2014 AML Conference Proposal

3.13.14 | | 20 comments

Following Tyler’s lead, I’ve decided to post the proposal for my AML presentation, which will be an expansion of my DBD post on “The New Mormon Fiction” from a few months back. Glenn Gordon is accepting proposals for the conference until March 20th, so if you are interested in presenting, there is still time. Based on Tyler’s proposal, and other proposals I’ve heard about, it’s going to be a great conference. 

See you there.

Mormonism has undergone significant changes over the last twenty years, leading sociologist Armand Mauss to declare that the LDS Church now has a different “feel” than it did in the 1980s and early 1990s. Among the changes has been greater transparency from the Mormon hierarchy on controversial subjects, an increase in open dialogue within Mormonism via the internet and social media, an apparent spike in faith crises, and the emergence of new sites of cultural tension.

What effect have these changes had on Mormon literature? In my presentation, I will argue that these conditions have contributed to what I call the New Mormon Fiction. Like earlier works of Mormon fiction, these works are “post-utopian” in the way they continue to reflect Mormonism’s desire to assimilate with its host cultures. However, unlike earlier examples of Mormon fiction, these works are essentially “post-faithful,” or largely unconcerned about fiction’s role as a vehicle for Mormon propaganda (of any stripe). Rather than bearing testimony, they seek to capture both the euphoria and anxiety of Mormonism in the information age.

My presentation will outline several trends that characterize the New Mormon Fiction. For instance, some works of the New Mormon Fiction are absurdist and darkly comical. Others are comprised of fictional documents, document fragments, and interviews that call into question what we know about history and narrative. Still others foreground conflicts between individuals and information rather than between individuals and the Church, its members, or the dominant culture. Collectively, my presentation will argue, these works comprise a new Mormon fiction that foregrounds acts of discovery and recovery, creative production, and paradigm subversion to disorient readers and force them to configure new realities, question long-held assumptions and notions of truth, and confront the challenges having “too much information.”

Mormon Literature: A Sunny Outlook

11.11.13 | | 22 comments

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.  

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Obstacles to a Mormon Literary Globalism

7.4.13 | | 7 comments

In her essay “The Ends of America, the Ends of Postmodernism,” critic Rachel Adams argues suggests that twenty-first-century American fiction has been moving in a transnational direction as “a constellation of authors” have resisted “the stylistic and conceptual premises of high postmodernism” by focusing instead on “the intensification of global processes” that have developed over the last half-century (250).[i] Using Karen Tei Yamashita’s excellent novel Tropic of Orange (1997) as a model, she describes this new focus as “American literary globalism,” a kind of post-postmodernism that builds upon certain conventions of postmodernism (like fabulation), yet has an entirely “new set of genealogical, geographic, and temporal referents,” including an interest in the global politics, multiethnic perspectives, geopolitical cleavages and tensions, border crossings, national and transnational relations, economic flows, and polyvocality that characterize contemporary globalized society (see Adams 261-265). For Adams, this literary globalism opens up a “shared perception of community whereby, for better or worse, populations in one part of the world are inevitably affected by events in another” (268). It is the new direction American fiction is headed.

It would be incorrect, of course, to suggest that Mormon novelists have embraced “American literary globalism” as Adams defines it, or even a kind of “Mormon literary globalism” subspecies. While transnational concerns have had a place in Mormon novels since the days of Nephi Anderson, these novels hardly constitute a majority within the still-developing genre. In fact, I think the relatively small number of writers producing Mormon literature today is enough to explain why more novels aren’t being written that address Mormonism from a global or transnational perspective—especially when you consider that most Mormon novelists who are able to find publishers for their work come from the United States and have strong ties to Utah and the Mormon Corridor. As Mormon fiction goes, Nephi Anderson remains the most important immigrant Mormon novelist. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but Mormon poetry, with poets like Alex Caldiero, has fared much better in this respect.)

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In Search of Complexity: A Review of Ryan McIlvain’s Elders

6.11.13 | | 5 comments

Ryan McIlvain’s Mormon missionary novel Elders (Hogarth, 2013) is set in the Brazil Belo Horizonte West Mission in early 2003. I served in the Brazil Belo Horizonte East Mission between 1999 and 2001. Like McIlvain’s missionaries, I spent many long days “hitting doors” and climbing hills to teach people whose interest in our message rarely matched our determination to share it—even when our determination was perceptibly lacking. Also, for more than half of that time, I found myself in situations much like what we find in the novel: a companionship comprised of one American missionary, one Brazilian missionary, and a trunkful of cross-cultural baggage.

I don’t know if any of this makes me an ideal reviewer for Elders. At times, reading the novel felt like time traveling. Once again, I was on the steep streets of Minas Gerais, nursing a grudge against a companion who was himself nursing a grudge against me. The palpable silence. The terse deliberations. The resentful longing for a new companion. McIlvain, a returned missionary himself, captures these realities of missionary life with an accuracy of which only the initiated are capable. His missionaries, Elder McLeod and Elder Passos, are a mismatched pair. McLeod, the junior companion, is the brash, fortunate son of a Boston bishop (think: Mitt Romney in the ’80s). Passos, the senior, is an ambitious convert from the favelas. Both have their admirable qualities: McLeod is earnest, if not successful, in his desire to seek Truth and acquire belief, while Passos works hard and cares deeply about his family. Still, they can’t seem to get along. McLeod’s doubt and immaturity grate on Passos, and Passos penchant for self-righteous posturing and mission politicking annoys McLeod. I don’t necessarily identify with either McLeod or Passos, but I can certainly relate to the tension. I know few returned missionaries who cannot.

Still, the dynamic between McLeod and Passos is well-trod territory in missionary fiction, which seems to depend—addict-like—on the tensions of incompatibility. Most recently, we’ve seen in in novels like S. P. Bailey’s Millstone City (2012), Bradford Tice’s “Missionaries” (2007), and in films like The Best Two Years (2003) and God’s Army (2000). The incompatibilities often stem from differences in commitments to missionary labor or belief in God, Jesus Christ, or Mormonism in general—and these differences alone often characterize the missionaries, making them seem more like types than real human beings. This is certainly the case in Elders, I think, although McIlvain tries hard to draw readers into the inner lives of his characters. Both McLeod and Passos deviate enough from the usual types to claim some complexity, but neither character truly surprises. Readers who are familiar with the tropes of Mormon missionary fiction—and the kinds of Mormon novels national publishers love—will be able to guess how this novel ends soon after it starts. (Those who saw Richard Dutcher’s States of Grace will no doubt see parallels between the two.)

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