Note: Both my wife Anne Stewart and I read Joanna Brooks’ The Book of Mormon Girl over the holidays and were deeply affected by it. I asked her to write a guest post on her response to it here, and I will write my own thoughts on the book at a later date. –Mahonri Stewart
A number of years ago, while I was working at a book store in Springville, Utah, called the Red Leaf, I read Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. I can’t remember the moment I picked it up or why I decided to read it (other than the obvious: women and the Old Testament). In the fictionalized world Diamant creates, Dinah (daughter of Israel) is surrounded, not by twelve brothers, but by women. While I was ever aware that these were fabricated tales, I was struck by the way she fully structured the story around the Biblical women. While I’d read many fictionalized accounts from the point of view of Biblical women, this was the first that felt so singularly focused on the woman’s journey. Here were women, strong women. These were not women whose rituals and practices were a shadow to the men in their lives; these were women with rich, powerful stories who led lives of their own. The Red Tent filled in the absence that is present in so many religious narratives: the women’s story.
Like other religious narratives, the Mormon story is starved for female narrative. In the Book of Mormon there are six named women, the Doctrine and Covenants only two, and even our female deity remains mostly veiled to us. In TheBook of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith, Joanna Brook’s narrative connects to generations of Mormon women and makes a place for women who are less orthodox. more →
Dan Harrington met the LDS missionaries, didn’t convert, but wrote a book about the experience — Who’s at the Door? A Memoir of Me and the Missionaries ( Amazon ) — which has been published by Cedar Fort. He was gracious enough to do an e-mail interview with me. You can also find out more about him and his book at his author website.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background prior to meeting the LDS missionaries?
When I met the missionaries, I was going through a tough time in life.
I had graduated college in 2002 with the intent of becoming a published writer, but by 2006 that dream was on life-support. I was shackled to a desk job that I hated but needed to survive.
To pump life back into my dream of getting published, I sent columns to various local media in the hopes of getting a freelance gig. At the start of 2007, a local paper bought my first column, and I was elated. I also realized that I had to keep the articles coming—no writer wants to be published just once.
I started wracking my brain for article ideas, and that’s when the missionaries came to my door. Almost immediately I realized I could write a story about them.
And how did that meeting lead to the book?
Initially, our meeting resulted in a newspaper article. The missionaries and the local ward were thrilled. By that time, I had grown fond of the elders and enjoyed our conversations about faith. They were so sincere, and I wanted to help them with meals, rides, or simply a warm place to get out of the harsh New England winter. more →
So your whole book is based on the structure of kissing, how did you decide to do that?
It’s funny because the sort of themes or structures that are pointed out to me usually they’re a surprise, like oh I did do that! So I think that I noticed that there were so many stories about kissing and so I just started calling them Take One, Take Two, Take Three and then there were the stories that ended up being about kissing too so we just called them Take Eight, Take Nine and then I found an in an old journal this map of Manhattan that mapped out the different places and I thought it was so funny that I made a copy of it and redrew it for the book. Its something I did when I was 22 but it sort of reflects the 15-year-old behavior and so then I didn’t fill it out when I got older but in the book I just extended the map and filled in all the other people I kissed.
So that raises a couple interesting questions. Before you took the book to the editor—as opposed to how it looks after the editing process—do you think the book is structurally the same now? Did little things like that make a big difference or was it just clarifying what was already there?more →
Since reading the first chapter of Elna Baker’s The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, the book has taken me on a ride. Sometimes I was filled with joy and sometimes with horror. Sometimes I felt she was very much my kind of Mormon and sometimes I wanted to slap her. In other words, it’s a good memoir.
1. Damage Control
About halfway through the book, a newly confident Elna (more on that momentarily) decides she will win the most desirable young Mormon man in New York. Her primary competition is an Amber who “is like a Heather only she’s attacking your spiritual worthiness and your dress size at the same time” (128):
And do you know what the craziest part about all this is? Amber’s popular. I’m dumbfounded by it. Not because I’m jealous or want to be popular myself, but because she’s insane. She raised her hand in church one Sunday and said that Katrina happened in New Orleans because sometimes God needs to “cleanse the world of sin.” It’s people like her that make damage control in the non-Mormon world a never-ending task. (129)
I’m with Elna here: It makes it harder for me to feel like a reasonable and respectable person when I’m put in the same category with Ambers. Seriously So Blessed owes its massive success to the existence of Ambers, and that faux Amber’s over-the-top self-righteous snidery rings plenty true — the site has both the insider lovemail and outsider hatemail to prove it.
So yay. Elna is a defender of the faith. Or is she, he said as he turned to the camera, one eyebrow raised.
Do we defend the faith alongside Elna? Or do we defend it against her?
This is not my review of Elna Baker’s new book. This is an accident. I read her first chapter then nine minutes later gave birth to a healthy essay. This sort of thing can happen, even with virginal New York Mormons like Elna. I promise I will do whatever it takes — count to 100 by sevens, whatever — to keep from conceiving an essay per chapter. If all goes well, you will not hear from us again until her book’s estimated due date, October 15.
The first “chapter” (it’s not called a chapter, yet that’s what I’m calling it) of The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is stage-setting, it’s an introduction — she hasn’t brought out the funny yet (though it’s funny), she hasn’t brought out the memoir yet (though it’s memoiric) — she’s setting the stage, she’s introducing us to her life’s dramatic conventions. She’s world-building.
Yet in these first 22 pages of her new memoir, Elna Baker carves out a rhetorical space for herself by discussing how she has carved space for herself in the real world. She is ”A Mormon in New York.” more →
Several things happened during Haley Hatch Freeman’s time in the spirit world: she was given the choice to return to earth life, she was shown one of her future children, she was reunited with her dead sister and dead grandmother, she was commanded to learn sign language, and she was commanded to write a book about her experiences as an anorexic teenager. Her memoir, A Future for Tomorrow, is the result of that commandment and is a unique and honest account of Freeman’s experiences with a harrowing mental illness.
Freeman’s story seems like the story of so many other teenage girls. With adolescence budding on her body and boys buzzing around her mind, Freeman–a young LDS teen from Scipio, Utah–finds an avenue of control that will ease her anxiety about all the changes she’s going through and that also brings her a more secure place in the social pecking order: dieting. What begins as some innocent missed meals and some innocent weight loss (she complains her new braces are too tight and she can’t eat) morphs into a much more dangerous illness when Freeman internalizes a few compliments too deeply and begins dieting and exercising to the extreme. Over the course of a year Freeman loses more than half her body weight, is taken out of school, suffers a psychotic break with reality, almost dies, is finally hospitalized and begins the long road to recovery. more →
I must begin this review essay, which I had great difficulty writing (for reasons that I hope become clear in my rhetorical wanderings), with a series of caveats, beginning here: I make no claims to represent the literary conscience of America or, for that matter, of Mormo-America—neither do I feel the need to make such claims, simply because I don’t believe I represent the mainstream American/Mormo-American literary consciousness or even, perhaps, that there is such a mainstream way of reading and thinking about the world. As a poet first, I’m attracted to language that, among other things, is lyrical, visceral, and deeply honest to human experience; that draws me toward deeper connection with my inner self/ves, with others, and with God. In short, I like words and combinations of words that cut to the quick, that don’t simply affirm my version of reality (though sometimes that’s nice, too), but that disrupt it, that persuade me to reevaluate what I know—or think I know—about myself and the moral universe I inhabit. more →
In writing a recent book review on my other blog a question occurred to me that I wanted to bring up here. Why is it that so many LDS books seem to focus on the silver lining and gloss over the storm cloud?
I often feel that LDS books–especially memoirs and biographies–would benefit from a little more time in the rumblings of the rain cloud. It makes me wonder, what is it about us that makes us so intent on playing Pollyanna? It seems like we lose some of the truth of our experiences when we refuse to talk about problems in the present tense. When we only admit our foibles after we’ve overcome them and they are instructive to us, we lose the benefits of the process. Without the process what felt like Truth to the writer degrades into mere truisms for the reader.
Of course, there are a few LDS books that spend too much time in the muck of things–The Backslider, even though I appreciated it as an artistic piece, felt that way to me. It is as if as Latter-day Saints we can only write in binary oppositions. I don’t think “there must be opposition in all things” necessarily means only black and white.
So, my question to you all, what books have you found that live in that magical spot between lost in the hurricane and refusing to admit it’s raining even while holding the umbrella? I could use some recommendations!