Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Get Your Hands Off Those Sheep": A Review of H.B. Moore's "Ammon"

Ammon has never been my favorite Book of Mormon prophet.

For two reasons:

First, as a kid, I never identified with the guy in the Arnold Friberg painting: I could never look that cool in a leather kilt and knit cap—even if I had the muscles and sword to back it up.[1] Abinadi and Alma the Younger, on the other hand, seemed more my style. They were the intellectual types—the talkers, not the fighters.[2] I could easily imagine myself shouting curses at the Jaaba-like King Noah while the rest of me burned like a hot dog on a stick.

Cutting off some barbarian’s arm was a different story. Sure, I’d have liked to dismember a roving hoard of Lamanites, but I had a hard enough time doing a pull up in gym class.

Second, there was a kid in my deacon’s quorum who loved Ammon. He idolized him the way I idolized Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.[3] Anytime anyone asked him who his favorite Book of Mormon prophet was, he had one answer: Ammon.

So, what was the big deal?

Well, the kid carried a Franklin Planner. Twelve years old and he had a Franklin Planner! I couldn’t get past it. A Franklin Planner! And he was probably the first deacon in the history of the Church who always had his shirts and pants ironed. While the rest of us were passing the sacrament with our flies down or our shirttails flapping, he was as crisp as a sheet of printer paper.[4]

I guess I continue to struggle with this.

Serving a mission, of course, helped change my perspective on Ammon. I still struggled to identify with his success—he had more baptisms, it seemed, in ten minutes than I had in two years—but I learned to appreciate the way he established trust with Lamoni and the people of Ishmael. He loved them the way I wanted to love the people I taught. That meant something to me.[5]

In recent years, I have also gained an appreciation for the fruits of Ammons labors, the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, whose story is one of the most moving in the Book of Mormon.[6] It’s one of those stories I think we need to talk about more.

So, Ammon and I have had a checkered past. I never rolled my eyes at the guy, but I also never skipped ahead to Alma 17.

Which is funny, because I jumped at the chance to read and review Ammon (Covenant, 2011), the latest Book of Mormon adaptation from H. B. Moore, whose previous Book of Mormon novels[7] have garnered no small praise and acclamation (several Whitney and Best of State awards).[8] While I normally don’t read fiction published by Deseret Books, Covenant Communications, and any of the other mainstream LDS publishers,[9] I decided to try this one out, see what all the buzz was about. Besides, the book—which hits LDS bookstores on June 1st—sounded interesting, and I had been wanting to read an adaptation of a Book of Mormon story.

Ammon, of course, is the story of the eldest son of King Mosiah who gives up the throne of Zarahemla to preach the gospel to his people’s sworn enemy, the Lamanites. From the scriptures, we learn that Ammon has extraordinary missionary success among the Lamanites after singlehandedly defending the flocks of his new boss, King Lamoni, against a gang of armed marauders.[10] His story, along with that of his kid brother Aaron, can be found in chapters 17 through 26 in the Book of Alma. It’s among the best known in the Book of Mormon. Today it is not uncommon to hear people in church talk about Ammon’s strength, diligence, faithfulness, and penchant for fainting.[11]

H. B. Moore’s Ammon is all of these things and more. The novel opens with Ammon and his brothers somewhere in the wilderness between the borders of the Nephites and Lamanites. Ammon, a lousy hunter, is being chased by a tapir he accidentally shot—he thought it was a small deer—and has to rely on his brothers to get him out of the mess.

In many ways, the scene sets up an important aspect of the novel: Moore’s Ammon is kind of flawed. He’s not the Boy Scout he’s often made out to be in Sunday school classes and Sacrament meeting talks. He has issues. He’s haunted by his past. On his hand is a scar from a blood oath he made before his conversion—when he and his brothers, along with Alma the Younger, were trying to destroy the Church.

Moore’s Ammon is also really violent.

No matter how hard he tries, he can’t escape violence. It’s the monkey that’s always on his back—even when he’s looking for peace. And it doesn’t help that he’s really good in a fight. Within the first fifty pages, in fact, Ammon beats the tar out of the guy who will become his chief nemesis—Zaman—in a kind of prize fight.[12] Later, Ammon beats up several of the other nefarious characters in the novel. Believe me, when it comes to fisticuffs, the guy’s got skills.[13]

Of course, after each fight Ammon is remorseful. One of the more interesting parts in the novel, for example, happens after his famous fight by the Waters of Sebus--during which he kills seven people and maims countless others. Looking around at his handiwork,[14] he is horrified:

How many have I killed? What have I done? Hot bile formed in his throat and he sank to his knees. He hardly noticed the remaining couple of rebels who stared at him in horror [….] They ran toward the trees, leaving their flocks behind. Ammon crawled toward the water, dragging his sword with him. He didn’t make it far before he retched in the dirt. His stomach seized again. Shouting filtered through his mind, but he heard only the thudding of his heart and his gasping breaths until someone touched his shoulder. Ammon spun, weapon in hand. (117)

The someone who touches his shoulder is not a badguy, but Kumen—his crooked-tooth sidekick—so Ammon doesn’t do any more killing that day. But the incident leaves him pretty shaken up, which is typical for Moore’s Ammon. At his best, he’s a tough guy with a sensitive side.

Ammon’s not the only interesting character in the novel. His love interest, Elena, in fact, is actually more interesting—at least most of the time.[15] She’s a Lamanite who’s a Nephite by birth. As a child, she and her family left Zarahemla after her father, Moriah, became disillusioned with its apparent lack of separation of Church and State. Consequently, Elena was forced to grow up in a society that views her, in many ways, as an outsider. Much attention is paid, for instance, to Elena’s fair skin—a characteristic she is ashamed of because of the way it separates her from her community. She is keenly aware of how it makes her different, abnormal, and possibly even unattractive. In today’s terms, she seems to suffer from a low self-esteem.[16]

Admittedly, interest in Elena comes less from who she is than from what happens to her. Often, novels have at least one character who takes all the beatings. In Ammon, this character is definitely Elena: not only does she have to deal with a lecherous old widower who wants to marry her for her youth and mothering skills, but she also has to endure family conflicts, kidnappings, hallucinogenic thorns, and other similarly bad things.[17] Through it all, she survives—although not without personal cost.[18]

Not every character in Ammon is as interesting as Ammon and Elena, though. Abish, the handmaiden to the queen, is more developed than her Book of Mormon counterpart, but she’s not as interesting as Elena—maybe because she is more self-assured. King Lamoni, likewise, is not that interesting; unlike in the Book of Mormon account, he doesn’t have a central role in Ammon. For the first half of the novel, in fact, he is practically absent, and it is not until he and Ammon travel to the Land of Middoni that he becomes more of a presence. Even then, though, he remains somewhat underdeveloped and wooden. At one point, we do get a brief sense of what it’s like to be Lamoni—that he lives in his father’s shadow, that’s he’s never been permitted to be his own man—but the moment passes almost before it’s begun.[19] On the whole, I was disappointed with his character.

Other aspects of the novel disappointed me. Despite its strong beginning, Ammon lags a third of the way into the novel as our hero begins teaching Lamoni and his people. One of the difficult things about adapting scripture to fiction, I imagine, is finding a way to come to terms with scripture language. When characters speak, should they use “thees” and “thous,” should they drop an occasional “behold” or “verily”?[20] For the most part, Moore’s characters speak with modern diction, but now and again their speech becomes stilted with words like “brethren” and an occasional vocative “O,” which ups the novel’s cheesiness factor significantly.[21] Ammon also suffers from no small amount of eyes brimming over with tears, throats tightening with emotion, eyes narrowed with anger, and brows furrowed with concentration. In this novel, in other words, emotion is something that is often handed to the reader on a plate, in a kind of shorthand of gestures, rather than something conveyed through actions and language.[22] Spiritual experiences (and romantic encounters), likewise, are almost always accompanied by the word “warmth,” which comes to feel a little repetitive after a while.

That said, I still liked Ammon—primarily because it concludes with an original ending that springs wholly from Moore’s imagination. In fact, one of Moore’s strengths as a storyteller is that she’s not wed to her source material. She understands, that is, that the Book of Mormon is scripture, not entertainment, so adapting it into fiction requires the occasional adrenaline boost.

Purists beware: this isn’t the Ammon story you grew up with.

Ammon, in fact, is at its best when it’s not trying to be the Book of Mormon story we all know and love. When it comes down to it, Moore’s best writing is action-driven. She revels in the thrown punch, the broken nose, the delirium of peril and visceral conflict. Action-adventure, clearly, is her genre of choice. I don’t know how many fights Moore has been in, but she seems to know her way around a scrape. It was one of the more surprising aspects about the novel.

Other aspects of the novel surprised me as well. The Book of Mormon, for example, is silent on the details of King Antiomno’s court in the Land of Middoni—where Ammon’s brother Aaron and his mission companions are held captive until Ammon and Lamoni arrive to free them[23]—but Moore imagines it as a second-rate kingdom with a repulsive, pedophilic King.[24] It, along with her descriptions of Aaron and the other emaciated prisoners, adds a horrific richness to the story that isn’t present in the Book of Mormon text. For me, it’s a haunting scene that jumpstarts the novel after the unfortunate slowdown of Lamoni’s conversion.[25]

Ammon is a sequel to Moore’s last novel, Alma the Younger, which I haven’t read.[26] While it works well enough as a stand-alone novel, I wonder if it might not be best to read it after reading its predecessor. I can’t say. Of course, now that I’ve read Ammon, I’m interested in reading about his wilder days as a Zarahemla heretic. I’m also interested to see how Moore follows this novel up. Will her next book be Aaron?[27]

As far as I know, there is no definitive fictional Book of Mormon adaptation. After my experience with the first edition Book of Mormon at the Blegan Library, though, I have wanted to get to know the Book of Mormon not just as scripture, but also as a book. Part of that project, it seems, is turning into a study of how fiction writers engage with the Book of Mormon and its many dramatic stories.[28] For me, Ammon has opened the gate to a new avenue in that study. It is an entertaining, adventurous spin on an old story.

It’s not a perfect novel, of course, but it has helped me view Ammon in a new light. He’s still not entirely divorced in my mind from the kid with the Franklin planner, but he’s getting there. I might even put in an order for a leather kilt and a green and red stocking cap.[29]

Now if only I could find some sheep.


[1] FYI: I didn’t.

[2] Yes, I am aware that Alma the Younger opens up a can of whoop-Amlici in Alma 2. A mere technicality.

[3] I was the biggest comic book geek from 1992 to 1994, when I learned that most girls didn’t think comics were that cool. Now I’m a closet comic book geek with a wife who appreciates Hugh Jackman’s take on Wolverine in a way that I don't understand.

[4] Did I mention he also wore a sports coat that matched his pants? Imagine! A deacon with a sports coat that actually matches his pants! Ammon didn’t stand a chance.

[5] To be sure, I continued to identify more with the missions of Abinadi to the court or King Noah or Alma and Amulek to the city of Ammonihah. Their experiences seemed more in line with mine—or, at least, it felt that way at the time. I could be a little dramatic.

[6] And I don’t use the word “moving” in this sense very often.

[8] I have never met H. B. Moore before, but I once browsed through a Seagull Book store while she was doing a signing for one of the Out of Jerusalem novels. This was back, obviously, when I still lived in Utah. It was an odd experience, though, because there were only three of us in the store: Me, H. B. Moore, and the cashier, who was probably an extremely bored BYU sophomore who needed the cash. I needed money too, which is why I didn’t talk to Moore, even though I thought of myself as a fiction writer (at the time) and would have appreciated a few tips from a real-life published author. You see, I guess I thought it would be rude to talk about writing with a real writer at a book signing without actually buying her book (I was probably wrong). So, I browsed. H. B. Moore waited patiently beside her books. And the cashier popped her chewing gum and listened to the Mormon pop being pumped through the store’s stereo system. I remember this experience, by the way, because I remember being surprised that H. B. Moore wasn’t a dude. You see, at the time, I worked as a custodian at the BYU Bookstore, so I had seen Moore’s books on the shelves. Fool that I was, though, I assumed that any author with initials for a first name was either a general authority or a man. I was wrong. H. B. Moore stands for Heather B. Moore, a name under which she also publishes.

[9] In this respect, I am a hypocrite. Publicly, I sing the praises of pop culture and its potential for academic study. Privately, I’m kind of snobby about what I read. Not so much about what I watch, though. Last night I spent two hours of my life watching (and enjoying) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

[10] Well…temporarily armed marauders.

[11] And not just from nicely groomed twelve-year-olds with day planners.

[12] My wife and I had many discussions about the correct pronunciation of Zaman’s name. I favored a pronunciation that rhymes with “Ammon” because it accentuated, in my mind, his role as Ammon’s foil. My wife, on the other hand, favored a pronunciation that rhymes with “Laman.” As usual, she is probably right. However, I continue to pronounce the name “Zammon” and would encourage other readers to do the same.

[13] Fighting skills, yes. Hunting skills, no. You’d think they’d go hand-in-hand. Not so.

[14] Unintentional pun.

[15] That’s right, folks. Ammon has a love interest. Obviously, the rules about the opposite sex in the White Bible (i.e. the Missionary Handbook) don’t apply to him. He’s a real smooth operator .

[16] I’m going to keep pop-psychologizing to a minimum, but I think my diagnosis of Elena is accurate. At one point, she states that Ammon’s “greatest service”—from her point of view—is “making her feel valued” (137).

[17] I’d go into more detail, but that would ruin the novel’s ending.

[18] If this sentences echoes in any way a commercial for a Lifetime TV movie, I apologize. Purely coincidence.

[19] One of the most enigmatic sentences in the Book of Mormon states that Lamoni was “caught with guile” when Ammon first taught him the gospel (Alma 18:23). I’ve never been able to find a satisfying interpretation of this sentence. Some take it to mean that Ammon used guile to persuade Lamoni to listen to him, but that doesn’t really seem to fit with Ammon’s mode of operation. Others suggest that Lamoni was not being completely honest with Ammon when he told him that he would believe all of his words, that he was stalling or telling Ammon what he wanted to hear because he was afraid. I prefer this second interpretation because it gives depth to Lamoni and suggests that he needed more than a miracle to accept the gospel from Ammon. In Ammon, however, Moore ignores the sentence about guile completely, perhaps to keep the narrative moving. Her Lamoni readily believes.

[20] I have recently (as of yesterday) started calling this way of speaking “Talking like a Nephite.”

[21] Of course, isn’t this the kind of thing that makes The Ten Commandments entertaining?

[22] Although, as the passage describing the aftermath of Ammon’s assault at the Waters of Sebus demonstrates, this is not always the case in the novel.

[23] See Alma 21, yo.

[24] I should note here that Antiomno’s pedophilia is implied, not depicted graphically.

[25] Yes, I recognize that it’s a little inappropriate to call Lamoni’s conversion an “unfortunate slowdown.”

[26] In fact, Ammon is the first and only H. B. Moore novel that I’ve read. So far.

[27] This seems like the logical follow-up novel. Ammon, after all, only covers chapters 17 through 21 in Alma, leaving chapter 22-26 still available for adaptation. I guess we’ll find out.

[28] Two of the best engagements I’ve come across so far are Douglas Thayer’s The Tree House, which draws upon the story of the stripling warriors, and Arianne Cope’s “White Shell” and The Coming of Elijah, which address the Lamanite curse. On my to-read list is also David J. West’s Heroes of the Fallen.

[29] Does anyone know of a good Nephite outfitter?

11 comments:

  1. Hey! I read the whole thing (the blog post, not the book)! Sometimes I don't feel smart/well read enough to read your posts. So, thanks for making me feel a little smart today.

    Also, remember when we saw each other at Little America a long time ago as you were moving away from Utah? Erin and I stopped by there when we were moving to Vermont from Idaho. We ended up eating lunch with our kids in the exact same spot where we saw you years before. It must be some kind of cosmic time warp picnic-table-of-time. I think I might have already told you about that once though.

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  2. Just keep in mind that you're the one in medical school.

    Your comment has given me a new desire to stop off at Little America, pay homage to the green brontosaurus, and test your theory about the picnic-table-of-time. You never know. It could be a left over from the Dharma Initiative.

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  3. .

    I liked David's book. And although the Yorgasons' Loftier Way is not that well written, it has some striking takes on BofM stories.

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  4. I've had Robert H. Moss's book "Title of Liberty" on my shelf for probably 15 years, but I've never read it. I bought it on a youth temple trip, but never bothered much with it.

    I haven't heard of "The Loftier Way." I'll have to see if I can find it.

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  5. Great and thorough review. In my head I pronounced Zaman as "Laman". We'll see how it comes out in the audio version.

    Thanks!

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  6. Love this! What a card you are.

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  7. I enjoyed the review. I always liked Ammon when I was a teen because he seemed like amazing boyfriend material.

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  8. Heather--Your comment made my wife very happy.

    I don't think I'll ever be able to read the book without thinking "Zammon," though. I'm too attached to my mispronunciations.

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  9. Heidi--Thanks!

    Julie--I guess I never really thought of Ammon in that way, but that's just me.

    I meant to bring this up in the review, but before I read the book I fully expected Abish to be girlfriend material for Ammon. Who knew he would fall for her best friend? Who knew she even had a best friend. That's the wonders of fiction for you.

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  10. Thanks for a thorough and entertaining review. I've also avoided popular LDS fiction, but a few years ago I made an exception and read David Woolley's Promised Land series. I was more than pleasantly surprised. Woolley's books are very well written and true to the scriptural account without sacrificing an entertaining storyline. I'd love to read your review of his work. Now that you've had a taste of Book of Mormon fiction, perhaps you would read his latest installment, COMPASS OF GOD and tell us what you think?

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