Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Low-Tech World Has Moved...and Changed Its Name

As many of my readers already know, I have begun a new Mormon literature blog called Artistic Preaching: Exploring Mormon Literature. It's essentially what The Low-Tech World has been for the last four years or so, but with a new name and slightly better graphic design. All of the posts and comments from this blog have been moved to the new venue.

It's possible that I'll keep writing a blog called The Low-Tech World, but it won't be on blogger and it won't be about Mormon literature. Rather, it will be a Wordpress blog about 19th-century American literature and culture.

Please become a regular reader of and commenter on Artistic Preaching. I've written several new posts since the change, and I've been happy with the responses to them.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best and Worst Reads of 2013

Unless I finish Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis before midnight tonight, I will have read 49 books this year. That's down significantly from last year, but in my defense I've been working full-time on my dissertation, which has left little time for reading books (and writing blog posts) that are unrelated to the project. So most of what I've read in 2013 have been for the dissertation or for the two literature classes I've taught this year.

As usual, I'm listing the five fiction and five non-fiction books I've enjoyed best this year--and the five books--fiction or non-fiction--I've enjoyed...er...least. Books I've read before are not included in the lists.

Best Fiction Reads of 2013
1. The Age of Innocence--Edith Wharton
2. McTeague--Frank Norris
3. Byuck--Theric Jepson
4. The Scholar of Moab--Steven L. Peck
5. The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint--Brady Udall

Honorable Mentions:
Lightning Tree--Sarah Dunster
Aspen Marooney--Levi S. Peterson
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets--Stephen Crane

Best Non-Fiction Reads of 2013
1. The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation--Armand Mauss
2. What of the Night?--Stephen Carter
3. The Mountain Meadows Massacre--Juanita Brooks
4. The God Who Weeps--Terryl and Fiona Givens
5. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930--Thomas G. Alexander

Worst Reads of 2013
1. Redemption Road--Toni Sorenson Brown
2. The Ferry Woman--Gerald Grimmett
3. American Massacre--Sally Denton
4. Elders--Ryan McIlvain
5. Falling Toward Heaven--John S. Bennion

To be fair to both Bennion and McIlvain, I gained more appreciation for their books after writing about them in my dissertation. Still, it's been a great year of reading--without a lot of clear duds--and I've got to have a list of five. They take their spots by default. Neither are anywhere close to being as bad as my top three worst.

Connor's Q&A with Author L. T. Downing

My daughter recently had a chance to ask author L. T. Downing questions about her historical novel for kids, Adventures of the Restoration: Get That Gold! Here are L. T. Downing's responses:

Connor Hales: How do you come up with ideas when you write your books? 

L. T. Downing: The ideas for the Adventures of the Restoration series came because I love history and storytelling. I have read a lot of history books about the early days of the church, but those books were too boring to read to my own children. So I began telling them about the really amazing things that went on during the Restoration period. Next thing I knew, I was writing those stories down.

CH: When did you decide that you were going to become a writer? 

LTD: I remember the moment I decided to be a writer like it was yesterday. I was four years old. When I was a baby, I never learned to crawl and a very famous baby doctor had written a book that claimed that babies who never crawl are likely to have trouble learning to read. My mother was worried I wouldn't be a good reader so she started teaching me as soon as I turned four. To her surprise, I took to it very quickly. One day I was sitting with her on the edge of my parents' bed, reading a story that had a big red can in it. My mom kept telling me there was no red can in the story. I got mad and kept pointing to the word. "C-A-N," I said. Then she pointed to the last letter and asked me to look again. Well, can you believe it? The word was spelled "C-A-R." The big redcar. Not can. I was astonished that changing one little letter at the end of word could change the entire meaning. That's when my mom said, "When you grow up, you can go to college and study English. And if you want, you can become a writer." Bam! Decision made. At the age of four, I couldn't imagine anything more wonderful—and powerful—than creating meaning by arranging letters into words and words into sentences and sentences into books. I still think that. 

CH: Was it fun writing the book? 

LTD: YES! There is nothing that is more fun than writing books for kids. Except for Halloween. And Christmas is pretty good too. 

CH: How long did it take to get your book published? 

LTD: Don't ask! I wrote Get that Gold! and the next book in the Adventures of the Restoration series (The Pilfered Papers) when my oldest child, who is twenty-four now, was about ten years old. I mailed the manuscript to two LDS publishers in existence then. I was told that the first publisher to whom I sent it would take it, but, in the end, the person with the final word rejected it. He said he didn't think it was a good idea to publish a novel with Joseph Smith as the point of view character. After all, no one knows exactly what Joseph Smith was thinking when those men in the woods attacked him. I guess the publisher thought kids might get confused and not understand what fictionalized history is. But personally, I think kids are really smart. The other publisher I sent it too didn't seem to understand that it was written for young people because they sent me a nice letter explaining how I should make the work much, much longer and more like The Work and the Glory series, which was written for adults and has books that are hundreds and hundreds of pages long. I felt sad that they wouldn't publish the Adventures of the Restoration series because I really felt like Heavenly Father inspired me to write them. But I also figured I'd just trust Heavenly Father and move on to the next thing. Your mom and dad will probably tell you that God's time schedule is not the same as ours. They are right. Nearly fifteen years after writing Get that Gold!, it found a publisher. 

CH: How did you become interested in Joseph Smith? 

LTD: I became interested in Joseph Smith when I was fourteen years old. Before then, I'd never heard of him. I was raised in the Catholic church. But I began hearing about Mormons when I was in eighth grade, so I looked them up in the encyclopedia. That was the first place I learned about the First Vision. I went to the public library and checked out a Book of Mormon. I did a lot of praying and received a testimony of the work of Joseph Smith. I always thought he was very brave. I know sometimes I was scared about joining the church because my family and other people didn't believe that the gospel needed restoring. I spent a lot of time thinking about how brave Joseph Smith had to be to do what he did. He wasn’t a perfect man. He made mistakes. We all do. But he is my hero. So it helps my testimony stay strong to think about the hard things he had to do so we could have the gospel of Jesus Christ restored to the earth. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Mormon Literature: A Sunny Outlook

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.  
Overall, I agree with Handley’s assessment of the present state of Mormon literature (if not his conclusions) as much as I regret that Oppenheimer’s article was not more broadly informed about Mormon literature. (Setting aside the Terry Tempest Williams faux-pas, the problem of Oppenheimer’s article boils down to the issue of sources.)  Still, I challenge the assumption—apparent in both pieces—that Mormon literature is somehow underachieving. True, Mormons have not, as Oppenheimer suggests, produced a Milton, Milosz, or Munro—but they have produced an Anderson, Sorenson, Scowcroft, Peterson, Udall, and Peck. Is this not an achievement—indeed, an over-achievement compared to communities with similar backgrounds? Moreover, I wonder if the cultural flaws Handley identifies as Mormon literature’s chief stumbling blocks are not in reality the source of its strength—the resistance against which it pushes and hones its muscles. After all, were it not for the triumphalist rhetoric, the thirst for vindication, the narrow view of Mormon identity, and the “positive-thinkers” of Mormonism, Mormon writers could not not have written iconic and iconoclastic books like Dorian, The Evening and the Morning, The Backslider, and The Scholar of Moab. Nor could Mormon writers have filled the pages of Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, Fire in the PastureMonsters and Mormons, and Saints on Stage. The truth is, Mormon writers need these cultural flaws—these walls of resistance—to make the utopian critique that is so crucial to what’s Mormon about Mormon literature.
Personally, I am not worried about the past, present, or future of Mormon literature. Having spent the better part of the past three years with Mormon literature, I know its weaknesses as well as its strengths. Give it time. Let it temper in the refining fire of cultural flaws. It has done well for itself over the last one hundred and eighty-three years. And it will continue to do so as long as Mormon writers keep at it and don’t let the hand-wringers discourage them. Setbacks, like the recent demise of Irreantum, will slow the momentum at times, but they will not kill it. Like the Church itself, Mormon literature has survived assimilation, correlation, and a host of other paradigm shifts. If Mormonism and its cultural flaws can produce the likes of The Backslider and The Scholar of Moab in a period of twenty-five years, why should we not expect them to do the same, with even better results, in the seventeen years remaining till the bicentennial? And why should we not expect them to continue informing great Mormon literature for another two hundred or five hundred or a thousand years?
What I’ve read of Mormon literature, what I know about Mormonism and Mormon writers, gives me nothing but a “sunny outlook” on its future.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Dissertation Musings: African-, Jewish-, and Mormon-American Literatures

From Catherine Rottenberg's Performing Americanness: Race, Class, and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature. (Dartmouth CP, 2008):

"The fascination with the novels produced by the emergent African-American middle class and the newly arrived Jewish immigrants, two groups locate on the periphery of US society during the Progressive Era and Harlem Renaissance, seems to persist because these literary text raise questions about what it means to be American with particular force. The narratives not only confront the topical issues of gender, race, class, and ethnicity with important insight, but they also address marginalization and social stratification with an urgency difficult to ignore." (1)

Can we (and should we) not say the same about Mormon fiction in the early twentieth century?

I think one important work Mormon literature scholars can do is situate early twentieth-century Mormon literature within this group of marginal/ized American writers.

Also:

"Not only did these two minority literatures [i.e. African- and Jewish-American literatures] undergo a transformation at around the same time, but both the African- and the Jewish-American fiction produced at the turn of the last century describe the rapidly changing historical landscapes and highlight how such changes created and stimulated certain conflicts vis-a-vis notions of Americanness. This literature is acutely aware of the liminal positions of African and Jewish Americans at the time; and quite a few of the novels dramatize the ways that these minority groups attempted to move from margin to center by carving our a niche for themselves in mainstream U.S. society as well as the mechanisms by and through which these groups were excluded from sites of power." (3)

Again, can we not say the same thing about the works of Nephi Anderson, Susa Young Gates, and Josephine Spencer?

Where was this book a year ago when I was writing about early twentieth-century Mormon fiction?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ten Observations about Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray’s One More River to Cross: A Review

1)  It was a good idea to revise and expand the Standing on the Promises trilogy. I like that the new One More River to Cross, the first volume in the series, is edgier, less apologetic, and significantly less deferential to the assumed reader’s expectations and pruderies. I also like that Margaret Young and Darius Gray, the co-authors, no longer feel it necessary in their chapter notes to justify their character’s belief that Joseph of Egypt’s children had skin “[b]rown as leather” (Revised 69, cf. Original 79) or make excuses for their characterizations of racist Mormons (see their note on Christopher Merkley in Original 89).

2)  I like that Young and Gray added chapters on Q. Walker Lewis, but I’m disappointed by the lack of substance in these chapters. These new chapters read more like history texts than chapters in a novel. Lewis doesn’t come to life in One More River the way Elijah Abel or Jane Manning do—and therefore seems somewhat out of place.

3)  The novel is rather episodic, so it’s ultimately the epic pageantry of the early Mormon ur-story that holds everything together. Personally, I would have skipped the epic pageantry for a more fluid narrative—more Orson Scott Card’s Saints and less The Work and the Glory—but I get the appeal of epic. I also get that this book is the way it is because it is a kind of response to The Work and the Glory and its predominantly white-washed account of Mormon history.

4)  As I hint at in my first observation, the new chapter notes are a significant improvement over those in the original edition. I’m still not a fan of their placement and intrusiveness, but I get that they are a generic convention and serve a function.

5)  Graphically, the new edition is a giant step backwards. The original edition was beautifully designed! Beautifully! This new edition: not so much. Which surprises me. In the past, Zarahemla Books has published novels with great covers—Millstone City, Dispensation, The Tree House, Rift, and Long After Dark—but not this time. How do we account for this graphic design snafu? 

6)  I’m both intrigued and confused by the way the novel includes historical figures like Frederick Douglass and Levi Coffin. On the one hand, I like how these characters help to situate someone like Elijah Abel in his times—not just as a Mormon, but as a free black man in America in the 1830s and 40s. On the other hand, I feel like these coincidental encounters with famous historical figures try the reader’s willful suspension of disbelief by creating situations that seem designed for little else but a quick history lesson. 

7)  Speaking of historical characters: Joseph Smith is a bit of a disappointment in this novel. I don’t see a great difference between Young and Gray’s Joseph and Gerald Lund’s Joseph. He sticks to the script.

8)  Elijah Abel is the novel’s most interesting character, and he really deserves a novel all to himself. As a life-long Cincinnatian, I am fascinated by the chapters that recount his experiences as an Elder in the city. Unfortunately, these chapters are not given as much space to breathe as earlier chapters that recount Abel’s life in as a young man wandering America. By the end of the novel, I miss the intimacy of these earlier chapters. I wouldn’t say the later chapters are rushed, but I would say that they feel crowded.

9)  Jane Manning is the novel’s most developed character, and you can tell that Young and Gray have a great affection for her. Reading her story is like reading the excellent memoirs and novels of nineteenth-century African-American women. Like Abel, however, her early chapters are more interesting than her later chapters—and I wish her time as a member of the Joseph and Emma Smith household received more attention. Really, what could be more interesting that an in-depth imagining of Jane’s take on the origins of plural marriage and the secrets and intrigue it fostered in the Mansion House? That also deserves a novel all to itself.

10)  We should keep in mind that Standing on the Promises is an ambitious work that covers 10x as many years as The Work and the Glory—but in six fewer volumes. Readers will find that it is stretched to its narrative limits and often trades quantity of information for quality of storytelling. Does it still work? Yes and no. One More River to Cross is not really a good novel the way Young’s Salvador is a good novel, but it is an important one—far more important than Salvador—because of the story it seeks to make accessible to a broad Mormon readership. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of Young and Gray, which also include films, the forgotten history of the black Mormon pioneers and early black priesthood holders is finding a place at the table of Mormon memory. Since this new edition of One More River to Cross strives to find that place more boldly and forthrightly than its predecessor, I think it deserves your time and attention.

My interview with Margaret Blair Young about this novel can be read here.

I received a review copy of One More River to Cross from the publisher.             

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Six Questions for Aleesa Sutton, Author of Diary of a Single Mormon Female

Last month I had the opportunity to review Aleesa Sutton's Diary of a Single Mormon Female for Modern Mormon Men. (Read the review here!) In conjunction with that review, I sent Aleesa a series of questions about her book. Here are the answers I got back...

SH: Tell a little bit about Diary of a Single Mormon Female?

AS: Having been primed for my "happily ever after" since I was a teenager, I never expected to still be single at age 32. Diary of a Single Mormon Female is a humorous and candid look at my mostly ill-fated efforts to find the man of my dreams, featuring pages, photos and handwritten notes from my journals. Those excerpts detail encounters with scripture juggling, a virtual albino Chinese teenager, chastity lines, the virgin lips club, Brazilians (not that kind), a pink flamingo date messenger, an open-minded parrot, a Swiss lumberjack, Icelandic Mormons, a marriage flowchart and dozens of awkward conversations. Diary is also a serious story about longing, the challenges of being single in a church focused on marriage and family and my desire to reconcile my religious beliefs with my reality.

SH: How did the book itself take shape? At what point did you realize that your diaries--or parts of your diaries--might be interesting or entertaining or helpful to someone else? 

AS: The book was born out of a crisis. Looking for a fresh start, I'd moved to Italy the year I turned 30. I met a sweet and great-looking Mormon man and thought I'd finally found the one . . . but the relationship crashed and burned. Just like every other one, it seemed. I felt overwhelmed by hopelessness and despair. Yet another romantic failure, and I kept getting older. What could I possibly change? I decided to take another look at the relationships I'd had in hopes of making some sense of it all. I'd kept dozens of journals over the years, so the stories were already there. I found humour: my diaries were full of awkward conversations and embarrassing experiences. I found pain. And I knew I wanted to tell my story, because it might help someone else understand their story better, too.

SH: I imagine that publishing a journal or a diary can be a nerve-wracking thing because it throws the doors to your inner life way open. Was that the case? Did you ever worry--or do you worry--about what the book might reveal about you--especially at the end when you are very honest about the spiritual toll single Mormon life has taken on you?  

AS: Oh, absolutely. I asked myself a lot of times whether I really, truly wanted to publish so much deeply personal material. I didn't take lightly the descriptions of the people in my life, either. There were some friends who thought it was a very bad idea and tried to talk me out of it. But I thought about the stories that have inspired me, and they're not, some bad things happened and then everything got better. They are, here's exactly what happened, here's what totally sucked, and here's how I got through it. That, to me, is what's inspiring, because it's authentic. There's a paradox: the more personal a story is, the more universally relatable it is.

SH: As you were getting the book ready, who did you see as your primary audience? How did that affect what parts of your diary made the final cut, and what parts didn't. I mean, I assume Diary of a Single Mormon Female is a trimmed down version of the original, right?

AS: I actually had three different audiences in mind. I wrote to Mormons as a whole, in hopes of increasing awareness and understanding of the unique challenges their single members face, as well as help develop more nuanced and positive discussions about celibacy. I wrote to a more general audience, in hopes that Diary will shed some light on a religion and culture that is often misunderstood. And, most importantly, I wrote to those who have ever longed for a dream that hasn't come true yet, because I wanted them to know: you are not alone. 

SH: What advice would you give aspiring Mormon writers? How would you encourage them to tell their stories?

AS: Realize that your faith tradition has probably shaped you in unique ways. Trust your voice and your perspective. What are the stories that have moved and inspired you, and how did they do it? Incorporate those techniques into your writing. And don't wait until the mood strikes you to write! Sit down and do it every day. This is what will make you a good writer.

SH: Now that you have published Diary of a Single Mormon Female, do you have plans for another book project? What in the future for the Single Mormon Female?


AS: I do have some other projects in mind. I'm interested in exploring the experiences of other marginalized populations within Mormonism. And of course, I hope to one day write a sequel: Diary of a Married Mormon Female!

Monday, June 3, 2013

"The Mechanics of Creation": New Flash Fiction on Wilderness Interface Zone

My short-short story "The Mechanics of Creation" is up today on Wilderness Interface Zone. I originally wrote it for the Four Centuries contest last year. It has undergone some slight changes since then.  

If you have two minutes to spare, drop by and read it. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only fictional representation of Joseph Fielding Smith changing a flat tire.

Nephi Anderson also has a part in the story.

I hope you like it.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

"Regimen" and the Mormon Lit Blitz

The second annual Mormon Lit Blitz began this week, and rather than participating behind the scenes, I get to to compete this year. My short story "Regimen" went up on James Goldberg's Mormon Midrashim blog yesterday. (See a full list of finalists below.)

"Regimen" is the third piece of micro-fiction I've had posted online. The first, "Album," was posted on Everyday Mormon Writer shortly after last year's Blitz. My second piece, "The Curse of Eve," went up on Wilderness Interface Zone in February. I've been pleased with all three pieces. They have been a nice creative outlet and distraction from my dissertation writing.

In the spirit of Wm Morris' "Liner Notes," I'll offer a few notes on "Regimen" for readers interested in its origins. Initially, the story began as an homage to Douglas Thayer's fiction, although many of the Thayeresque elements became lost through revision, particularly in the second half of the story. I wanted the story to be about a young man's awakening to the disparities between what is real and what he often assumes and imagines to be real. One thing Thayer's writing has done, I think, is make us more aware of the inner lives of young men in the Church--inner lives which tend to be much richer, imaginative, and valued than we as adult leaders generally want to believe. In "Regimen," I wanted this valued--even sacred--inner life to surface, or threaten to surface, in a way that challenged the main character's hold on it. I wanted him to feel his world coming apart.

I also tried to address the issues of wealth and social inequality within Mormon culture, which is another prominent theme in Thayer's work, and something I felt keenly as a youth in the Church. Wyler's ambivalence toward his adolescent body is another nod toward Thayer and his career-long study of Mormon masculinity. Wyler's idealization of Tina and preemptive disillusionment, however, derive from my own observations about how young Mormon men learn to think about young women.  

The green bikini is symbolic. Opaque clues to the origins of the color green are in Thayer's The Conversion of Jeff Williams, my favorite Thayer novel.

I have more to say, but I think I've already indulged enough in self-analysis. I've enjoyed reading the responses and analyses from readers. I hope to read more.

I'm also enjoying daily Mormon literature. It's going to be a great two weeks.

Here's the Mormon Lit Blitz line up:

Mon, 13 May: Introductory essay by the editors

Tues, 14 May: "Actionable Intelligence" by Jonathon Penny

Wed, 15 May: "Regimen" by Scott Hales

Thur, 16 May: "Celestial Terms" by Sarah Dunster

Fri, 17 May: "The Accidental Jaywalker" by Ben Crowder

Sat, 18 May: "Dumb Idols" by Hilary Stirling

Mon, 20 May: "Sister" by Merrijane Rice

Tues, 21 May: "Kayden Abernathy's Journal Pages 35-37 Partially Recovered from the House Fire, 6/21/2013" by Steven Peck

Wed, 22 May: "Natural Coloring" by Marianne Hales Harding

Thu, 23 May: "Birthright" by Emily Harris Adams

Fri, 24 May: "In Which Eve Names Everything Else" by Katherine Cowley

Sat, 25 May: "When I Rise" by Kimberly Hartvigsen 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Troubling the Metanarrative: A Review of Sarah Dunster's Lightning Tree


The challenge of Mormon historical fiction is Mormonism itself. As a metanarrative, after all, Mormonism assumes history is a giant puzzle where every piece contributes perfectly to the whole. Eternity extends forever in all directions, but time unfolds with a purpose. Adam falls, Christ redeems, Joseph Smith restores. Every baptism furthers the gathering of Israel, contributes to Abraham’s posterity, and brings to pass God’s work and glory. When something bad happens, Mormonism assures us it’s all part of the plan.

Except when a few puzzle pieces refuse to fit. For example: Black men are kept from the priesthood for longer than a century, seemingly without explanation. This is where Mormon historical fiction becomes challenging. If all history is supposed to testify that God’s hand is in the details, particularly in respect to the unfolding of the Restoration, how do we make sense of the aberrations, the ill-fitting pieces? Do we ignore or whitewash them, as some authors have done, and focus on the bigger picture? Do we take a pair of scissors to the pieces and force them to fit? Or do we toss out the metanarrative and consign Mormon history to chaos of chance?

These are the questions Mormon historical novelists have to ask whenever they take on the Mormon past—especially when what they take on seems to challenge the integrity of the sacred metanarrative. This is what Sarah Dunster has done with Lightning Tree (Bonneville Books, 2012), a novel about the difficult years of the Utah War (1857-1858), an era of Mormon history that few Mormons today know much about. And for good reason. No time in their history have they been more afraid, more desperate, and more willing to grapple tooth and nail with their enemies. These were days when Brigham Young preached blood atonement and George A. Smith whipped southern Utah into a frenzy so intense that a handful of zealots carried out the Mountain Meadows Massacre, one of the worst atrocities committed on American soil. It’s hardly the stuff of a tidy metanarrative, and one can understand why a Mormon historical novelist would want to avoid it.   

Still, Dunster is not the first to set her novel during the Utah War. Nephi Anderson treats the war briefly in Marcus King, Mormon (1900), strategically skipping over any messy details with the assurance that “a great poet” would “[s]ome day […] find all he needs in the heart histories of those trying hours” (107). Perhaps trying to be that poet, Susa Young Gates uses the Utah War as the backdrop for her jingoistic novel John Stevens’ Courtship (1909), which paints the Mormons as innocent victims of a corrupt and heathen state. More recently, the Utah War—or something akin to it—has been the stuff of science fiction, with Lee Allred’s For the Strength of the Hills (2001) and D. J. Butler’s The City of the Saints (2012). Also, the Mountain Meadows Massacre has been featured in many novels, including Vardis Fisher’s The Children of God (1939), Lee Nelson’ Storm Testament IV (1985), Marilyn Brown’s The Wine Dark Sea of Grass (2001), Judith Freeman’s Red Water (2002), and Gerald Grimmett’s The Ferry Woman (2004).

Lightning Tree, of course, is like these novels in its determination to bring forgotten history to life. Set in Provo one year after Mountain Meadows, the war initially seems a thing far removed from the life of Magdalena Chabert—or Maggie—the novel’s fifteen-year-old French-Italian protagonist. Like most teenagers, Maggie is less concerned about regional political crises than she is about more immediate concerns: friendships, family, and growing up. She is an orphan, the eldest daughter of Waldensian converts who died on the trek to Zion, and feels her second-class status keenly. Angsty, rebellious, and resentful, she battles constantly with Ma Alden, her foster mother, over her own upbringing and the upbringing of her younger sister, Giovanna. She also harbors suspicions about Ma Alden that a series of terrifying dreams—and alarming discoveries—only heighten.

Unlike so many novels about the Utah War, however, Lightning Tree does not try to capture history with broad strokes. The turmoil of Johnston’s occupation of Utah, along with the haunting specter of Mountain Meadows, lurks beneath the surface of Maggie’s story. Yet, it is not until the end of the novel, when John Cradlebaugh arrives in Provo to investigate rumors of Mountain Meadows and other crimes, that history collides with the intimacy of Dunster’s narrative. Even then, however, Maggie’s story never falls by the wayside. Indeed, if Lightening Tree succeeds on any level, it is on the level of character. The Utah War and Mountain Meadows may be unfamiliar territory, but Maggie’s confusion, vulnerability, and loneliness are not. As a character, she serves as a helpful anchor for readers who feel adrift in the strange setting.

Maggie’s is more than an anchor, however. The trauma she experiences when she uncovers the truth of her dreams parallels the trauma of the Mormon people—past and present—in the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The way she copes with the startling truth—the way she comes to terms with it and the silence surrounding it—serves as a model for how readers deal with the ill-fitting pieces of the metanarrative. Moreover, like the reader, she must herself find a way to reconcile her faith with the rumors of the massacre, particularly since her foster father is implicated in them. However, unlike characters in The Wine-Dark Sea of Grass and Red Water, Maggie’s questions and fears about the Mountain Meadows are steps removed from the source. Her personal trauma, which is a figure for our larger historical trauma (and trauma from history), is her primary concern.

The distance Dunster keeps from Mountain Meadows is perhaps a reflection of her target audience, young adult readers. Lightning Tree zeroes in on grim years from the Mormon past, yet she does so without overburdening readers with the full emotional weight of the Utah War. As an adult reader who prefers to drink history straight, I wish Lightning Tree had more of an edge to it. While the story and its characters captivated me, I did not feel fully transported to the alien world of nineteenth-century Mormonism. To be sure, this is no critique against Dunster’s writing style or historical sense; rather, I think it is merely my reaction against the novel’s tight focus on Maggie’s young adult experience. Her naïveté makes her a heartbreaking, realistic character, but it also limits her perception. Had Dunster allowed the novel’s point-of-view to drift into the minds and hearts of her other characters, especially the complex Ma and Pa Alden, Lightning Tree would have resonated more with me.

At the same time, I recognize that this is an important novel for young adult readers—and certainly adult readers—who are interested in Mormon history. Far from the whitewash of The Work and the Glory and its imitators, this novel provides a matter-of-fact portrayal of nineteenth century Mormonism that is free of cliché. Dunster, for example, bravely incorporates into her narrative such taboo topics as blood atonement and polygamy, yet without the sensationalism that we see in works like Red Water, The 19th Wife, and True Sisters.

This, in my opinion, makes Lightning Tree a must-read work of Mormon historical fiction. It troubles our notion of the Mormon metanarrative puzzle, yet without the scary music that causes so many to flee the puzzle’s challenge. It draws us in, pulls us towards the truth(s) of history, and gives us ways come to terms with what we find.