Thursday, April 28, 2011

500 Words on Mormon Fiction and the Decline of the Rural Utah Aesthetic

Rural Utah has been important, historically, for Mormon novels. Even recently, acclaimed novels such as Todd Robert Petersen’s Rift and Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist suggest that rural Utah (particularly southern Utah) continues to speak to the Latter-day Saint experience.

For some time now, though, the Church has started to focus less on its Utah identity and more on its global image. Take a look at the photography used on its webpage and you will find very little that smacks of rural Utah.

Of course, rural Utah is still a part of church culture and teaching. Just this morning, for example, I shared a quote by Spencer W. Kimball in which he talks about milking cows as a boy—something, I guarantee, a majority of LDS Seminary students have never done. In General Conference, too, we still tend to hear stories by General Authorities about their farm days, although this is beginning to change.

Change is happening in Mormon fiction as well. While the literary Mormon novel continues to hold tight to the rural Utah aesthetic—a veritable Bishop’s Storehouse of settings, images, characters, tropes, and dialects—Mormon short fiction seems to be cutting ties, ditching the farm for less greener pastures. More and more we are seeing stories about Mormon life outside of Utah. Even better: we are seeing an increasing number of Mormon stories cross national boundaries.

Admittedly, some recent Mormon novels have ventured beyond the borders of both Utah and the United States. Douglas Thayer’s The Tree House, for example, takes place not only in Utah, but also in Germany and Korea (although, I think it’s safe to say that Harris Thatcher’s mind is never far from home). Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven, likewise, takes readers on a journey through Colombia. In both instances, these border crossings happen from the point-of-view of American missionaries, so foreign lands always remain foreign.

Although I’ve criticized mission fiction in the past, I think such stories as Paul Rawlins’ “The Garden” and Laura McCune-Poplin’s “Salvation” (along with Thayer’s The Tree House) prove that mission stories don’t have to suck. Still, I’d like to see more kinds of transnational Mormon experiences depicted in fiction. More Latter-day Saints live outside the United States than in, after all, so it stands to reason that their stories should have a prominent place beside the rural Utah aesthetic.

Now, I’m not saying that I don’t like rural Utah fiction, but I do find myself being drawn to stories that give me a different picture of Mormonism. In Long After Dark, for example, Todd Robert Petersen has some excellent stories about Mormons in Rwanda (“Quietly”) and Argentina (“Now and at the Hour of Our Death”), which show the possibilities of an international approach to Mormon literature. I’m hoping that these stories foreshadow the future of Mormon fiction.

I’m also hoping that the proposed anthology of Portuguese Mormon short stories by Samuel Lamanite Editions hits the presses soon. It’ll be a step in the right direction.

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