Category Archives: Historical Fiction

A Review of L.T. Downing’s Get That Gold

2.16.14 | | 3 comments

Get That Gold is a tale of the LDS Restoration, aimed at middle-grade readers (and for families to read together, according to the author.)

I started this story with some trepidation. I always feel that way about books written by writers in this LDS community. I once read something that Angela Hallstrom wrote about how, as a writer of LDS fiction, she didn’t feel she could be a reviewer of LDS fiction. The two were becoming less compatible for her.

I have determined to be both a writer and a reviewer because I feel that I have a kind of duty, if that makes sense. I love LDS fiction. I actually read it, and I read it growing up. Therefore, I am a legitimate part of the audience, and as a writer, I can provide good feedback and some relevant insights about books I read, mingled with real constructive criticism as someone who works hard at the craft myself.

The problem is, this means sometimes I’ll be reviewing the story  of someone who has reviewed mine. There can be a feeling, in this small community of “tit for tat,” etc, whether people mean that or not. So I’m just going to state up front, right now:  all of you people in this community who are reading my stories? And writing reviews of them? I expect your honesty, and I can handle it. If you did not like something about my story, say so. So that I can improve. If you found dialog disingenuous or forced. If you disliked a character. If you felt my plot fell apart, or my pacing was off. (Mark Penny pointed this out about Lightning Tree, and gave me only three stars because of it. See? I really can handle it.)

Not to say I don’t believe my stories are awesome. I think they are. And those of you who have appreciated and reviewed them, thank you for taking the time to write a review! It really helps motivate us as writers to get feedback not just from our audience but from our peers who are among that audience.

OK. Disclaimers aside. I’m going to say the stuff I’m dreading up front, like ripping off a bandaid.

I enjoyed both Island of the Stone Boy and Get That Gold, but I felt both could have benefited from another round of editing. Not sentence structure or grammar; I think Downing is flawless there. More for story flow, descriptions and dialog. Particularly when description and dialog mixed, I felt jarred a lot. There were some tag echoes, a bit too much description of character movement/action in the middle of dialog, and some of the character descriptions and actions were hard to picture in my head.

OK. I got that out of the way. Moving on:

Get That Gold is eminently worth your time. I loved this story, and I know my kids will love it, and I fully plan on reading it to them as a bedtime story for the next several nights. I was deeply touched by this story. I loved the depiction of Joseph, especially. I was moved to tears at times. I loved the depiction of Emma. I loved Joseph’s family. I can tell that Downing put a great deal of time and effort into her research, and as a reader I trust that. I really enjoyed being transported into the setting and time period of the restoration. Above all, I felt the excitement, the deep and spiritual profundity, of Joseph and his retrieval of the Gold Plates.

There is a slapstick feel about Downing’s fiction at times. Her humor runs to the bad-guys-being-silly-and-getting-hurt sort of thing. While I am not the biggest fan of slapstick, I know this will make my kids laugh a whole lot as I read it to them. As an adult, I probably need to loosen up and enjoy it more, too.

I know that this story has been waiting for a while to be published; that one of the big 3 LDS publishers finally turned it down several years ago because they felt the fiction made light of the sacredness of the Joseph Smith story. I felt the opposite. I felt, after reading this, excited to re-read Joseph Smith History in my scriptures, and the testimony of the witnesses. I felt excited to read the Book of Mormon. I think that this story is a jewel, to be honest. As I read it to my children, I expect it will engage them in the story of the Restoration, and help them to be interested in Joseph Smith as person. I find this to be a vital part of my own testimony and am grateful someone has taken the time to write a story that will help young people see the excitement, the danger, the fun and funny in such an important story.

Author interview with Lisa Torcasso Downing

12.19.13 | | 2 comments

AMV readers may mainly know Lisa Torcasso Downing from Mo-lit circles, including the comments section here and at the AML blog, and her work as fiction editor for Sunstone. But Lisa also writes fiction and has recently had two works of middle grade/YA fiction published by Leicester Bay Books (as L.T. Downing): Island of the Stone Boy and Get that Gold!  (the latter is part of her Adventures of the Restoration series). Lisa agreed to talk about those two books with me as well as some other Mo-lit topics.

You have two books that recently came out. Let’s tackle the one first that doesn’t have an overt Mormon connection: Island of the Stone Boy. You call it Mormon-friendly. And yet it is a “kid horror” novel. How do you make those [two terms work together?]

There’s no conflict between the terms, though I suppose the word “supernatural” might appeal to LDS parents a little more than “horror.” Maybe not. The reality is Island of the Stone Boy is a suspense novel. Yes, it’s a ghost story, which makes it paranormal, a subset of horror, but the suspense is what keeps my readers flipping pages. I recently got a note from an LDS mom who handed her 10 year old Island of the Stone Boy on a day off from school. He read it cover to cover in one day even though his brothers bugged him to join in a movie marathon. That didn’t happen because the book has ghosts, but because I remember what used to compel me to keep reading as a child, to click that flashlight on under the covers once my mother had closed my bedroom door. So that’s what I offered up in Island of the Stone Boy: good, old-fashioned suspense. more

“I’m Addicted to Story”: An Interview with Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson

5.28.13 | | 5 comments

As one of my last posts for A Motley Vision (I’ll go more into that in a different post) I wanted to conduct an interview with one of my favorite Mormon playwrights (one of my favorite playwrights, period), Melissa Leilani Larson. Mel has created a body of work that is impressive and moving, and she is one of Mormonism’s best and brightest dramatists. So without further ado:

1. So, first, tell us a briefly about yourself. Your personal, educational, creative background as a person and as a playwright, your interests, what makes you distinct?

Melissa Leilani Larson, photo taken by Alisia Packard

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I think that love of reading led me to writing stories of my own. I wrote all through school, first grade on up, until I earned my BA in English/Creative Writing from BYU and later my MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.

As far as what makes me distinct… Fabulous actresses far outnumber the parts they can play. My ultimate goal is to write fascinating, engaging, and challenging roles for women. A lot of them—several strong female roles per play. That’s the distinction to which I aspire.

2. You were chiefly an English major/literary personality before you switched your focus to writing for a theatrical medium. What changed that direction? more

The Uncorrelated Jesus of James Goldberg

4.24.13 | | 7 comments

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1. Spoilers

I’m not going to make any notable efforts to prevent “spoilers” in this review. For a few reasons. First, if you haven’t read the book yet, no one’s making you read this review. Besides—I’m pretty sure you already know the gist of this story. So any spoilers have little to do with what and much to do with how.

2. Uncorrelating the Savior

To start with, he’s generally called Jesus in this novel. Compare that to these instructions from the General Handbook of Instructions:

If the Savior is portrayed, it must be done with the utmost reverence and dignity. Only brethren of wholesome personal character should be considered for the part. The person who portrays the Savior should not sing or dance. When speaking, he should use only direct quotations of scriptures spoken by the Savior. more

Notes on Susa Young Gates’ John Stevens’ Courtship

1.12.13 | | 9 comments
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Susa Young Gates

This week I finished Susa Young Gates’ John Stevens’ Courtship: A Story of the Echo Canyon War (1909), one of the first Mormon novels. Below are some notes I drew up to gather my thoughts on the book, which I think is fairly typical of the kinds of fiction Mormons were producing at the time. A few things set it apart, though, and I try to highlight those aspects in my observations.

  • As best as I can tell, John Stevens’ Courtship is the first novel published in book form by Susa Young Gates, one of Brigham Young’s many daughters. It might also be the first novel published in book form by a Mormon woman, but I could be wrong. Earlier novels by Mormon women had been published before 1909, in serial form, including Emmeline B. Wells’ Hephizibah (1889) in The Woman’s Exponent and Gates’ The Little Missionary (1899) in the Juvenile Instructor.
  • It is probably the best example we have of early Mormon historical fiction. It certainly uses Mormon history in a way that compliments the narrative better than either Nephi Anderson’s Marcus King, Mormon (which is superficially historical) or John St. John (which is textbook historical). I imagine Gates’ models are the works of Walter Scott, E.D.E.N. Southworth, and their imitators. Here, the action of her characters play out against the pageantry and crises of the Utah War in a way that does not sacrifice character and plot development to the facts of history. In other words, I feel Gates allows the events, atmosphere, and attitudes of the Utah War to unfold through her characters’ stories rather than through pedantic narration. more

Blinded by the Fire: Cultural Memory and the Response to My Mormon History Plays

12.15.12 | | 13 comments

Farewell to Eden_Georgiana and StephenNOTE: This was written for a final paper in my Dramatic Writing MFA Writer’s Workshop class where I was supposed to apply Anne Bogart’s book A Director Prepares to my own  work. Thus the navel gazing…

In her book A Director Prepares, Anne Bogart addresses various challenging experiences theatre artists face in creating their art. In the book she confronts Memory, Violence, Eroticism, Terror, Stereotype, Embarrassment, and Resistance. Although she writes from a director’s perspective, I found them particularly helpful from a playwright/screenwriter’s point of view as well.

Having been both a director and a writer for the theater, I have found both creative processes put me in a similar place intellectually and emotionally (especially when I’ve been a director for my own work, it just seems to be a different step of the same process). Although I will write about how all of these qualities addressed by Bogart have affected my work in future posts, I would like to focus on each of them one at a time. So first on deck for this series of essays is…

Memory:

In her book, Bogart states:

Theatre is about memory; it is an act of memory and description. There are plays and people and moments of history to revisit. Our cultural treasure trove is full to bursting. And the journeys will change us, make us better, bigger and more connected. We enjoy a rich, diverse and unique history and to celebrate it is to remember it. To remember it is to use it. To use it is to be true to who we are. A great deal of energy and imagination is demanded. And an interest in remembering and describing where we came from (p.39).

For me this statement from Bogart has resonance on so many levels. In my work, I’ve focused a great deal on historical drama, especially from my Mormon heritage. My intense interest in Mormon history has bled into a number of my works, reaching back as far as my high school juvenilia. more

My 2012 Mormon Arts Favorites

12.8.12 | | 11 comments

So this is not some snazzy, official list with criteria, rubrics, or voting committees. This is just my personal, gut-feeling-favorite Mormon Arts contributions that I have experienced this year. This also doesn’t mean that it was even published or produced in 2012… these are works/artists that I have personally encountered this year (or so).  So keep that in mind as I submit “Mahonri Stewart’s Personal Mormon Arts Favorites of 2012!” (Which may or may not become an annual tradition, depending on how lazy I am next year).

FAVORITE MORMON PLAY: MELISSA LEILANI LARSON’S MARTYRS’ CROSSING

MARTYRS' CROSSINGSo, beyond what I’ve seen my Zion Theatre Company produce this year, I haven’t had a chance to see much Mormon Drama in 2012 since I live in Arizona (kind of pathetic since I’m supposed to be the Mormon Drama expert around here). I can’t visit Utah on a whim to see the rare Mormon themed play that comes around (or, this year, New York with #MormonInChief!), but what I have done this year is read a bunch of older Mormon plays to finish my editing for Saints on Stage. Since one of those plays was produced again this year, I am choosing Melissa Leilani Larson’s Martyrs’ Crossing, which has been getting great reviews at the Echo Theatre in Provo. I saw BYU’s production of the show years ago and read it again this year, and it’s as beautiful and vibrant as I remember it. Melissa is one of Mormonism’s best playwrights and, although I would  call Little Happy Secrets her best work so far, Martyrs’ Crossing is a personal favorite, much due to Mel’s beautiful writing and to my love for Jean d’Arc… who I may tackle a play about some day as well, although it would be pretty different than Mel’s take. Mel keeps beating me to the punch on stories that I love, including Jane Austen’s Persuasion and her upcoming adaptation of my all time favorite novel, C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. Despite that personal frustration, I can’t but help look at these works and say, “Well, at least Mel wrote it, because it’s beautiful.”

FAVORITE MORMON PLAYWRIGHT: MATTHEW GREENE

Although I haven’t seen or read it, just the fact that Matthew Greene was able to get a Mormon themed play up in major a New York fringe festival is nothing to sniff at. I’ve read both positive and negative reviews for #MormonInChief,  but I admire Matthew (who was in BYU’s WDA Workshop with me several years ago) for really jumping into the New York theater scene and progressing the cause of Mormon Drama. He’s also got an upcoming play coming soon to Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City called Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea. Matthew is getting some real traction in his career as a dramatic writer and I believe it’s well deserved. more

The love and hate of The Giant Joshua

7.3.12 | | 8 comments

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In 1941 when Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua was released, her publishers anticipated huge sales and an endorsement from Church leadership. Whipple doubted this very much. In the end—and the publisher blamed this on the advent of WWII—the book was not the breakout success New York anticipated.

The only official statement in a Church organ was John A. Widtsoe’s review in the February 1941 Improvement Era. Based on the vitriol the novel allegedly had hurled against it, I expected this review to be dripping with anger and outrage. That’s not what I found: more