When Mormon Literature folk think of Orson F. Whitney, it is usually in regard to his 1886 talk that predicted that Mormonism would yet have “Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” But in 1926, after two decades as an Apostle, Whitney was still writing about literature and the role it would play in Mormonism. That year Whitney penned a five-part article for the Improvement Era in which he explored the question of literature and Mormonism, and in doing so came closer than any previous author to a Mormon theory of literature.
I approached this review with a lot of trepidation. I am not a schooled poet. I took exactly three writing classes in college, and I haven’t read nearly the amount of poetry that someone who professes to be a poet ought to have. I have written many poems, but I didn’t really figure out what a poem was supposed to be, for me, until I took that one poetry class (Jimmy Barnes, BYU, “writing poetry”) about ten years ago. So beware and bear with me. I’m coming at this from a very unschooled angle.
Field Notes on Language and Kinship is, essentially (I think) an observation on poetry and the way it fits into LDS culture in particular. Chadwick explores, in turn, how to read poetry (don’t force interpretation, instead give way to the language), why to write poetry (poetry can “give shape to ideas… that might otherwise be too diffuse”), why to read poetry (poetry is often intended to be mediation—an act of “moving” and “softening” for a reader and for the poet, and thus might draw them closer to God, the gospel, or other redeeming forces/ideals.)
The first story Chadwick relates in the book is about his grandmother who loved to hike, and went on many difficult excursions during her life. At each hike’s summit, or endpoint, she would collect a rock and label it. She collected these rocks in a jar. And Chadwick inherited this jar—chose it from his grandmother’s possessions after she died. As a boy, it intrigued him—rocks from all of these high points of his grandmother’s experience.
I believe this book is a similar rock-collection for Chadwick, only instead of pieces of granite, he has assembled poems to mark high points, important conflicts, switch-points and turns in his development as a human being and as a reader and writer of poetry. Each of the sections focuses on a different aspect of his own relationship to language and how it developed and was influenced by life events, whether that be his mission, his mentors in college, his explorations of Sonosophy, his wife’s first pregnancy, the birth of a child, a sister struggling with infertility, and of course the time and attention he spent putting together Fire in the Pasture. more
Roy A. Prete has edited and Merrell has published a new coffee-table book titled The Mormons An Illustrated History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Here’s the publisher’s pitch to make you want a copy:
From its establishment in 1830 in New York State, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown to be a world religion with almost 15 million members in 150 countries. Mormons are so called on account of their belief in the Book of Mormon, which tells the story of the ancient people of America. The Mormons is the only illustrated history of its kind, and traces the faith from its foundation by Joseph Smith and the early days of intense persecution to the building of Salt Lake City under the leadership of Brigham Young and the massive expansion of the Church in the second half of the twentieth century. The book offers perspectives on the Church’s core values by those who practise the faith every day. Contributions from a range of Mormon experts consider a variety of topics – including the origins, beliefs and practices of the religion, its phenomenal success in recent decades as the Church has become increasingly international, its relationship to other churches, and the lifestyle of its members – making this the perfect introduction to Mormonism, one of the fastest-growing Christian churches in the world.
•The only pictorial introduction of its kind on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
•Insightful contributions by Mormon scholars on the origins of the Church, its core beliefs and the lifestyle of its members
•With more than 250 colour photographs and drawings
The promotional fellow who sent me a copy suggested the volume ”should appeal to Mormons and non-Mormons alike.” He said so because I asked who the intended audience was. I asked who the intended audience was because I couldn’t figure it out just by looking. more
I knew I needed to download Ryan Rapier’s debut novel The Reluctant Blogger when I read his review of my book, Mile 21. It was a review that I really appreciated, because… well. His book is about the same thing. The protagonist suddenly loses an eternal spouse. The protagonist is not coping well and has to be pushed into coping by loved ones/professionals/ecclesiastical leaders.
His review meant a lot because I knew it came from a place I respected. Ryan Rapier had goals similar to mine in writing his story, and so comparing how we both did at accomplishing those goals–bringing up complex doctrinal issues, how they mix with and influence feelings and coping in the wake of tragedy, and the way friends, family, and ward members can add to or lift burdens of those grieving–has been awesome.
I finished The Reluctant Blogger yesterday night. In fact, stayed up until one in the morning, which I don’t often do, but my husband was next to me in bed feverishly sketching out plans for our attached greenhouse (am I allowed to put links to my blog in here??) and I was caught up in the story.
The loneliness a person feels in LDS culture after being removed of spouse, with hazy ideas as to what the future might hold for him, is deep and consuming. Confusing. I know it because I went through it in the form of a messy and frightening, and very public divorce. I was blessed because I ended up two years later with an amazing guy, and with a sealing cancellation signed by the First Presidency. I had the ability to be sealed again to someone. But how many aren’t so lucky? The thought has haunted me. What if the First Presidency had said no to me? What if my life had gone another direction, and I had been expected to live 60 more years sanctified by sacrifice and loneliness, instead of being loved by someone and having the large, happy family I had always planned for?
I think writing is often an exploration of the things that crack us and break us and frighten us and confuse us and cause sadness, though we know if we have testimonies of the gospel that they shouldn’t, because God’s plan is eternal happiness. We know all this stuff down here is for our good…etc. But imperfect human minds aren’t always up to the task of peace in the face of deep grieving. I think the biggest plague in this world, the thing that causes the very most pain, is loneliness.
Because we Mormons believe Marriage and Family are the crux of eternal happiness, those relationships affect happiness and emotional stability at a much more salient and deep level. (Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe those of other denominations would take issue with that statement.) Being without spouse after a certain age is also something that people in the church have difficulty dealing with. It’s almost like what Phillip Pullman portrays in his series His Dark Materials: every human has a daemon, except for those who’ve had theirs cut away. And people can’t even look at them. It’s too hard. It’s unnatural, like looking at something mutilated… broken… it’s something they fear happening to them above all else, and so they just can’t face the thought it could happen.
I’m going to say I really liked Ryan’s portrayal, though there were a couple of things I struggled with. The most glaring was that I really, passionately disliked the therapist character. That might be because I dislike and distrust all therapists, so, probably partly my own issue. But that character just seemed so arrogant, and shallow. He spent half the time thinking about office furniture. I think it was meant to be funny but it came off as extremely annoying. Also the therapist… the blogging…. I know, I know, it’s the title and central premise of the book. But it felt a little forced and unnecessary. I feel like the story could have been better, less awkwardly conveyed, without the therapist and blog as our channel to the main character. And I have a hard time believing someone would blog entire conversations, completely with facial expressions, gesture, etc.
The other difficulties I had were minor. There weren’t very many, and they were mostly “new writer” awkwardnesses that I’m sure I still commit myself.
As I read, I found something pretty wonderful in Ryan’s writing. He’s not overly dramatic (except for the part where he screamed while in therapy. But maybe people do that. I don’t know. I just can’t picture a pretty staid, responsible, mature 38 year old doing it. Crying, maybe… growling, maybe. Screaming’s pretty extreme.) But other than that, it was all completely believable. He includes just enough detail, just enough delving into the emotions/mind of the main character, and the supporting characters were, I felt, masterfully portrayed as well. I felt especially for Alex, the main character’s 13 year old daughter. How many men can portray grieving-13-year-old-girl to any degree of accuracy? An impressive feat.
I’ll go on to say that, while my story and Ryan’s are similar, the issues he addresses are broader and braver. In addition to being a widower, the protagonist is a father of 3. He’s older–late thirties. Like in my story, his relationship with his parents is complex and not always supportive. In addition, he addresses an issue all us wives think about at times–that of multiple wives in the afterlife. Kind of an ouchy spot. He addresses it well, with a realistic resolution.
And to top that off with more wonderfulness, he addresses the issues of homosexuality and the church. A really wonderful guy “comes out” in the course of the novel & the reader experiences at a very deep, real level, what that means in the context of Mormon Culture. Including the protagonist’s struggles, which include prejudice and fear. If I cried at any point in the book, that was it.
Bottom line, it’s not a perfect book. Of course it’s not. It’s a debut novel. But Rapier’s talent is obvious in spite of new-writer awkwardness. The Reluctant Blogger is definitely worth reading. Rapier is a writer who seems driven to address the “issues on the edge”, things that Mormons worry about but don’t quite understand. Things we struggle with. Things we grieve privately over and sometimes feel judged about.
In other words, things that need to be written about.
Where should literature fit in our priorities? Is it more important to preach the gospel than put on a play? Is culture worth time away from service? While its probably not that simple—one of these things doesn’t necessarily take away from another—still our Mormon culture and its products are often assumed to be less important than the stated gospel priorities of teaching the gospel and redeeming the dead. The following passage shows that the Church doesn’t (or at least didn’t) see it that way.
George Clooney, I’m told, uses his star power for good. That is, he makes a blockbuster—say, Ocean’s Thirteen—to keep his box-office mojo shiny, then spends that star capital on getting Burn After Reading made. Or The Perfect Storm so O Brother, Where Art Thou? can exist. The Coens, it would seem, owe megamovies a great debt.
Drawing on Mormon elements to make things interesting, exciting for a national audience is the easiest opportunity and one worth doing.
Speaking to the mass American Mormon audience and mirroring their concerns and values is another opportunity. It’s less interesting to me, but it has its place.
Critiquing Mormon-American culture and the LDS Church from a place of disaffected Mormonism is another opportunity. It’s less interesting to me, but it has its place.
Providing realistic but faithful portrayals of the daily lives of Mormons is another opportunity — and one of my favorites.
But none of those truly leverage the simple fact that many American Mormons are well-positioned (because of assimilation; because of our dual citizenship) to critique the various main streams of American culture in a non-reductive, original, LDS-infused way. This is not done very often. It is very interesting to me.
The fall 2013 issue of Dialogue went live yesterday to electronic subscribers. Print editions are in the mail (or will soon be). I’m delighted and a bit awed that this issue devotes more than 20 pages to my story Dark Watch–it’s my longest published story to date. The way I usually describe it is: post-apocalyptic Mormon fiction told in alternating second person.
Dark Watch began as 8 or 9 lines of verse hastily scribbled at least a decade ago, perhaps longer. It continued to percolate. I think I added a second stanza. At some point it turned into the beginnings of a story. Sadly, I can’t find the original source material nor the notes that transitioned it into a science fiction story. I can picture the scraps of paper in the faded manila envelope I had collected them in, but I can’t find that envelope. I can say this the initial image–one member of a couple watching a storm flow across a broken plateau, her spouse startling himself awake–is where it all began and made it all the way through to the final product. more