Tag Archives: missionary fiction

A Bibliography of Mormon Missionary Literature

7.23.13 | | 38 comments

Ask and ye shall receive.

A few weeks ago, Scott Hales wrote a post on the AML blog about what to know before writing Mormon missionary fiction. The comment thread turned into a discussion of recommended missionary fiction, and a couple of people expressed the need for a bibliography of Mormon missionary literature. I may not be a fiction writer, but I am a librarian, and compiling such a bibliography sounded like something that was right up my alley, so I asked Wm if he’d be willing to host it at AMV and now here we are.

I started the bibliography based on the works mentioned in that comment thread, but I’m planning on updating and maintaining it, so please leave any suggestions or corrections in the comments. more

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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Messiah Complex or Deacons Quorum President Power-Trip: A Review of Bradford Tice’s “Missionaries”

12.7.12 | | 12 comments

Earlier this week I gladly inherited a copy of The Best American Short Stories: 2008 from some some friends. As I scanned the table of contents, I noticed that Salman Rushdie, the year’s editor, had included a story called “Missionaries” by Bradford Tice. I wasn’t familiar with Tice, but the story sounded potentially Mormon, or at least religious, so I skipped ahead to investigate. Sure enough, the story was about two Mormon missionaries, Elder Case and Elder Joseph. Case and Joseph, by the way, are their first names. For some reason, they don’t use last names in this story.1

The story is your average missionary story based on assumption and Wikipedia research. Case and Joseph are missionaries in Knoxville, and, as with so many missionary stories, one of them is disobedient (Case) while the other is not (Joseph). So, you can kind of guess where the story goes. They teach three people in the story—an old stoner (Claude), a senile black woman (Ida), and a young goth woman (Margo)—and during each visit Case uses his charm and salesmanship skill to rack up his baptism tally. Meanwhile, Joseph sits back and watches disapprovingly as Case smokes (first weed, then tobacco), lies, and has sex with the goth.

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My take on S.P. Bailey’s Millstone City

6.25.12 | | 5 comments

AMVer S.P. Bailey’s Millstone City has already been reviewed here by Th. Jepson. The novel can be purchased from Zarahemla Books. The Kindle version is only $2.99 (other ebook formats to come) and the trade paperback is $15.95.

I provided a blurb for it. Partly because Shawn and I have been alpha/beta readers of each other’s work for several years now, but mostly because I really like what he did with Millstone City and how it fits into the field of Mormon literature.

Here is my full blurb for the novel:

In Millstone City, the LDS mission novel and the thriller collide to create something new: an intense, gritty story that is nevertheless shot through with resilience, honesty, optimism and, yes, that certain willful naïveté that missionaries possess. Call it Mormon neo-noir. Or full-throttle faithful realism. Whatever you dub this hybrid, clearly, S.P. Bailey is well versed in both of the literary streams he’s working with, and I’m very pleased to see him cross them to such good effect.

And here is another thought:

Part of why I think this counts as missionary fiction rather than just being a thriller is that it all starts with a minor infraction of mission rules. In other LDS mission novels, such a minor infraction may be played as comedy, or lead to some tension between characters, or simply try to capture the up-and-downs of a mission. Here it has major repercussions.

In addition, the resources the Elders call upon to help them with their situation — members, relatives of members, the mission president — are true to life. Also true to life is the fact that their efforts aren’t always 100% effective. This is not to say that this wholly a work of realism. But rather that because it draws enough on the tropes and traditions of  Mormon faithful realism, it has a bit more heft and dimension to it than I had expected, especially considering that it’s, essentially, a thriller/suspense novel.

Millstone City by S.P. Bailey

6.7.12 | | 13 comments

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Here’s the elevator pitch for Millstone City: “Two Mormon missionaries stumble into the City of God—-will they survive?

And that’s a pretty good pitch, but it misrepresents the feel of the book. If you’ve seen City of God you know how terrible and sick its violence makes you feel:

The film offers little comfort to viewers uncomfortable with their own complicity in the on-screen violence, or those seeking a ‘ray of hope’ in the narrative. Meirelles introduces alternatives to violence, only to then dismiss or disempower those alternatives. City of God breaks with audience expectations by presenting no viable moral choice. The allegory of the chicken’s  dilemma—“if you run away they get you and if you stay they get you too”—illustrates the film’s fatalism, a fatalism that is not only ascribed to Rocket, but impressed upon the viewer throughout the film.  [source]

Millstone City is not a fatalistic novel.  And so while I’m new to the John Le Carré game (I just read my first book), I think Bailey’s story of Brazilian gangsters has more in common with Le Carré’s Cold War spies than City of God or anything else I’ve read or seen recently.

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Return Missionary goes back stories

8.22.11 | | 8 comments

Peter Mountford’s A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism (see my GoodReads review ) has its problems, but the premise is not one of them: a bilingual but Americanized Chilean is hired by a venture capital fund to gather intelligence in Bolivia by posing as a journalist around the time of the 2005 presidential election. The execution isn’t there, but it’s a fantastic way to deal with issues of capitalism, politics, identity, language, third world tourism, expatriate-ism, etc.

So my question is: are there any stories out there that do the same (or a similar) thing with Mormon missionaries? I can’t think of any, but my reading in the field is by no means encyclopedic.

If there aren’t any, there should be. What a fascinating way of digging in to several of the key issues of our current day. And it’s got to be a fairly common thing. I know of several Mormons who have served non-stateside and have gone to back to their field of service to do charity work, or go to school, or start a business or career, or as a consultant or foreign service attache or tourist, etc. And the RM-who-returns is the perfect vector through which to tell stories: insider but also outsider in both his/her own nation and the one he/she travels to. The studying abroad or teaching English abroad narrative is a total cliche. And the missionary in the mission field is a bit of one now in Mormon literature. But RM who goes back? As far as I know, that’s open territory. Somebody should jump on that.