Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My Adventure in the Blegen Library; or, What I Learned When I Risked Looking Like an Idiot to See a First Edition of the Book of Mormon

While the University of Cincinnati’s Blegen Library might not be the coolest-looking building on campus, the fact that it’s purported to be haunted ups its street cred in my book. Descend into the belly of the bibliophilic Hell that is the classics library and you’ll see what I mean. It is likely among the eeriest places on campus. Right out of the first scene in Ghostbusters. If there's a disembodied spirit with unresolved issues on campus, it's shacked up in the classics library.

Few people frequent the Blegen Library, so it’s a fairly quiet place. Still, because it lacks desk space, it’s not the best place to study on campus. I found this out the hard way when I grew tired of the only decent place to study in the building--the classics library—and so sought out a more excellent place to read.

I knew the rare books collection was on another floor, so I decided to check it out. I had heard rumors of its potential as a study place. Maybe it had the kind of study space I was looking for.

I was wrong. As soon as I stepped through the class door of the rare books collection I could see that the place was practically sitting in its own lap. The reception area was cluttered with bookshelves, cardboard boxes overflowing with leather-bound tomes, and wooden pushcarts piled high with mildewed notebooks and records from the late nineteenth century. Nearly lost in this mess was a reception desk, behind which sat an aloof undergraduate typing away at a laptop. He barely looked up.

Nice, I thought. The place was a custodian's nightmare, but (I admit) a researcher's low-tech dream of paradise.

It was my kind of place.

But I had miles to go before I could kick off my shoes and sleep, so I took what I hoped to look like a nonchalant drink from a lukewarm water fountain and turned to go.

"May I help you?"

I turned around to see another Blegen employee, an undergraduate in her sophomore or junior year. The look on her face—part irritation, part confusion, part panic—told me they didn't get too many visitors there. It was similar to the "What the crap are you doing here?" look I used to get all the time as a missionary.

At this point, I could have been honest, admitted that I didn't know what I was doing, and walked away. I could have even been completely honest and said that I was looking for a quiet place to study.

But I didn't. Instead, I made something up. Off the top of my head. I didn’t want to look like an idiot.

"Uh, yeah," I said, "do you guys have a library catalog?"

"Not like a card catalog," she said, using a tone that matched the look on her face. "We've got a computer. We haven't had a paper catalog in a long time."

"That's fine," I said, wondering if there was something about me that suggested I hadn't been in a library since 1987, when card catalogs were still all the rage.

As she led me into the collection's one computer, she explained that they usually only help those who make an appointment. I looked around. Aside from her and the guy at the reception desk, I could only see one other person, a silent researcher, and she looked like she lived there.

"I’ll keep that in mind next time,” I said.

The computer was in a larger room partitioned off from the main room by a glass wall. "We're all about high security here," my guide explained. "You'll need to leave your backpack outside." As I set my backpack beside the reception desk and followed her through the glass door, I wondered if the glass wall was bulletproof. I had seen Angels & Demons, so I knew how things could get in an archive.

Of course, I had no real business being at the computer. I was supposed to be somewhere else, some quiet place, working on the two essays I had due at the end of the quarter. Worse, I wasn't practicing effective time management. Stephen R. Covey would not be proud. So, behind that wall of potentially bullet-proof glass, I did what any well-trained graduate student would do: I looked up my paper topics.

"Emily Dickinson" turned up nothing interesting, but when I typed in "Mormon" (I was writing a paper on Todd Robert Petersen's Long After Dark), I discovered that the library had a first (1830) and third edition (1840) of the Book of Mormon.

Ten minutes later I was sitting at a table with the two Books of Mormon in front of me. The small 1840 edition was in bad condition. "You'll have to be careful with this one," the undergraduate said as she set the tattered book down. It was held together by a thin red ribbon. The other edition, the first edition, was in a box. Before setting it on the table, she opened it and showed me the book. "This one's really beautiful," she said, opening its thick black cover to show me the ornate endpaper.

I had seen pictures and replicas of the tan-colored first edition, and the book she held in front of me looked nothing like it.

Crap, I thought, it's been rebound.

I took the book from her and fanned the dust-smelling pages pocked by decades-old water stains and mold spots. As I did so, my eyes I glimpsed names as familiar to me as the names of my own brothers and sisters: Jacob, Abinadi, Amulek, Helaman, Riplakish, Coriancumr, Moroni. I turned to the end of the book and scanned the last few pages for these words:

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things.

Maybe it was the glass wall. Maybe it was A. S. Byatt. But as I read this passage—possibly the most famous passage in the book—I started to wonder if there might be historically significant marginalia somewhere in the book--some six word revelation or observation penciled in by a well-known person from Church history. In my mind's eye, I saw the Daily Universe headline: GRAD STUDENT FINDS LOST BOOK OF MORMON OF MARTIN HARRIS. CONTAINS PARTIAL MAP TO LOST 116 PAGES.

No such luck. All I got were molds spots and the satisfaction of holding a book pressed by E. B. Grandin himself.

The third edition was similarly void of news-making marginalia, although on the inside back cover someone had written out a list of the various editions of the Book of Mormon. The rest of the book was much like the first edition, except this copy was in worse condition. At some point, possibly decades ago, times and seasons of use had severed the cover from the spine. As I turned over each page, tiny flakes of brown paper broke off and fell like ash on the table.

I left the rare books collection a few minutes later. I had papers to write and other research to conduct, so I took the elevator to the main floor and found a desk in a quiet corner of the Classics library. Before long, I was wading chin-deep in the viscous prose of Emily Dickinson's letters. My morning with the Book of Mormon had passed.

Later, though, as I made my way down the steep slope of Straight Street, where my car was parked, I thought about the two time-eaten volumes and how different they were from the Book of Mormon we now know. The old editions had no chapter headings, no verses, no cross references, no index. They looked more like average books of works of scripture. It occurred to me that reading them in such a way would be a very different experience. When I read the Book of Mormon, after all, I tend to treat each individual verse as something set apart from the rest of the chapter, something independent that contributes, nevertheless, to the bigger picture.

In many ways, I think this is true for most Mormons who read scripture: it's a verse-by-verse process. When we mark a scripture, we tend to mark the whole thing—even when only a part of it moves us.

When the first Mormons read the Book of Mormon, though, they were forced to read the words on their own terms, with little editorial mediation, and nothing to mark one passage off as different from or more important than another. When Parley P. Pratt spent the day reading the Book of Mormon, there was no 1 Nephi 3:7 or Moroni 10:4-5. All he had were words.

By the time I fitted the key into the ignition of my car, I had committed to reading the Book of Mormon again—this time with a copy sans verses. I’ve read the Book of Mormon, after all, more than any other book on my shelf. But I’ve never really felt—oddly enough—that I was reading a book. For me, the Book of Mormon has always been something more. And I expect it will always be that way—even when I’m eighty, chewing on false teeth, and reading with a magnifying glass.

But, after handling those old editions, I want to experience the Book of Mormon as a book—the way I experience other books—because I believe it has something to offer as a book.

I don’t know if that’s possible, of course, but I want to find out. It would make looking like an idiot in the Blegen worth it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Teaching "Dispensation": What Does Mormon Literature Have to Offer?

I recently wrote up and submitted to my department a description for a 200-level English class called “American Religious Landscapes.” If the course is approved, I will spend a quarter next academic year guiding some thirty undergraduates through various works of religiously-themed literature. On my proposed syllabus, I have works by Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, Toni Morrison, and several other well-known American writers. I also have Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction on the list.

My justification for using Dispensation, since I probably need one, is that you can’t talk about American religious landscapes without talking about the Mormons.

Or can you?

How much of an imprint have Mormons made on America’s religious landscape? No doubt their contribution to the formation of Utah is one obvious way Mormons have altered American landscape. But my notion of “landscape” seeks to move beyond a concrete understanding of landscape. Have the Mormons really affected the way Americans think about religion?

Certainly not in the same way evangelical Christians, Catholics, Jews, and even Muslims have.

Or have they?

Part of why I want to bring the Mormons into my discussion of American religious landscapes is to get my students’ reactions to Mormon literature. In a sense, I want to find out what they think of it and, more importantly, how they situate it among the other works we study. Will they find it an easy fit? Will they see it as an anomaly? Will they be able to "get it" without knowing much about Mormonism?

Will they be able to engage with it on the same level as, say, a Flannery O’Connor short story?

Since I’ve never taught Mormon literature before, I have no way of knowing how my students will receive the stories in Dispensation. My hope is that they will value it along with the other texts we study.

Of course, I value Mormon literature, and I know what it has to offer me as a reader and as a student. What I’d like to know, though, is what my readers think:

What do you think Mormon literature has to offer non-Mormon readers?

Are the stories Mormons tell about themselves relevant to the larger American religious landscape, or is it a landscape that is best left in isolation?

What do you think?

Monday, March 21, 2011

"Exposed and Dangerous Regions": A Review of Jack Harrell's "A Sense of Order and Other Stories"

Rexburg is an underutilized setting in Mormon literature. As an undergraduate at Ricks College/BYU-Idaho, I spent two and a half academic years within its city limits. It and its surrounding landscape were like nothing I had ever experienced before. Few people, I think, know what to expect when they visit.

Once, for example, I took a charter van from Salt Lake to Rexburg. Christmas break was nearly over and I was heading back to school. Travelling with me were an identical mother and daughter pair, some kid who never talked, and (get this) a middle-aged Romanian with a newfangled mp3 player.

Along the way it came out that the daughter was beginning her freshman year that winter semester. She had never been to Rexburg before. I think she was from California.

We arrived in Rexburg around dusk, and it was immediately clear that the Christmas season had not been kind to Rexburg. Everything was encased in ice or buried in snow. As we got off the freeway, the Hideaway Tavern to our right seemed to glow blue. It was as if we had somehow found our way into the dreary scene from the most dismal snow-globe ever made. As we wound our way to the Manwaring Center parking lot, it was clear that the daughter was experiencing…mixed feelings.

"It's so bleak," she said.

Indeed it was.

Another time, my FHE group was having an activity off campus in the home of our bishop. Our High Council representative, an old Idaho man with beady eyes and quiet ways, was given the task of driving us there. Our bishop lived only a few minutes away. We piled into the backseat of his car and started chatting. No one paid much attention to where we were going. The High Councilor said nothing. We barreled down the dark Idaho back road with nothing but the headlights to guide us. No house lights. No streetlights. Nothing. We were the only car on the road.

Twenty minutes later, the car ride had lasted fifteen minutes longer than it was supposed to, and I was freaked out. Every time I looked in the rear view mirror, I saw the stern American Gothic face of the High Councilor looking right back at me--or, at least, he seemed to be looking back at me. Had he stopped the car right there and pulled a shotgun out of the trunk, I would not have been surprised. It was the perfect setting to go Misfit on a carload of college freshmen.

Of course, nothing of that sort happened. It turned out that he had just misunderstood directions. He thought the activity was at his house, not the bishops. An easy mistake for an old guy to make. We all laughed it off.

I admit, though, that dark, isolated landscape, which seemed vast (and bleak) even at nighttime, spooked me. Rexburg can be a strange place. Indeed, it wasn't until much later, when I came upon this passage from Washington Irving's The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837), that I understood why that place, of all places, seemed so different, so strange, and so captivating:

Captain Bonneville sent out four men, to range the country through which he would have to pass, and endeavor to get some information concerning him; for his route lay across the great Snake River plain, which spreads itself out like an Arabian desert, and on which a cavalcade could be descried at a great distance. The scouts soon returned, having proceeded no further than the edge of the plain, pretending that their horses were lame; but it was evident they had feared to venture, with so small a force, into these exposed and dangerous regions.

When Bonneville's scouts played the "lame horse" card, they had good reason. As anyone who has ever stood alone in the middle of the lava plain on the outskirts of Rexburg knows, those "exposed and dangerous regions" can leave you feeling pretty vulnerable. It's just you, the rocky ground beneath your feet, and a really (really) big sky.

If you want to feel weight of God's gaze upon you, take 33 west out of Rexburg, past the (inelegantly-named) Beaver Dick Park and the (inaccurately-named) Menan Buttes, and drive until you feel like you've found the proverbial "middle-of-nowhere." Once you get there, get out of your car. You'll see what I mean.

The landscape of southeast Idaho is something else. Terrifying. Sublime. Mystical. Bizarre.

In my opinion, it’s what makes Rexberg infinitely more interesting than Provo.

And, in many ways, it is also what makes Jack Harrell's latest contribution to the Mormon literary canon, A Sense of Order and Other Stories (Signature Books, 2010), so good. Indeed, although Rexburg and southeast Idaho are not the exclusive settings for this collection of sixteen stories, their presence sets the mood for the entire work. Central to A Sense of Order, after all, is the theme of the fallen world—although Harrell's fallen world hasn't yet gone to seed: it's no Great and Spacious Building, Tower of Babel, or Sodom and Gomorrah. Rather, it is, as the title of one story suggests, a “Lone and Dreary World"--still raw with memories of Eden. There, the lines between heaven, hell, and Earth are very thin. It's can be a rough and alienating place.

A lot like southeast Idaho.

In his introduction to A Sense of Order, Professor Robert Bird compares the collection to a triumvirate of American Romantics--Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe--and I think the comparison is an appropriate one. Harrell's stories, after all, aren't "realistic" in the way that the stories of, say, Todd Robert Petersen or Douglas Thayer are. For instance, in the book's first story, "Tregan's Mettle," a young man from Rexburg picks up a hitchhiker who turns out to be Jesus in hippy clothes. In another story, "Jerome and the Ends of the Universe," another young man leases an empty supermarket and builds a giant model of the solar system. In both stories, the predictability of the material world is set aside for the "certain latitude" that Hawthorne grants the Romance in his preface to The House of Seven Gables. Like Hawthorne, Harrell presents his readers with a "work of art" that offers "truth under circumstances [...] of the writer's own choosing or creation."

So, in a way, there's no real order in A Sense of Order: a sense of it is all you're ever going to get. Like the Romantics of the nineteenth century—and the magical realists of today—Harrell offers a view of the world on his own terms, and stories like "The Trestle"--a Serling-esque tale of choice and consequence--make you glad he does. While Harrell’s prose isn't flawless, his stories stick with you throughout your days and nights.

If you are like me, you won't be able to get them out of your head.

Of course, there are some stories in the collection that don't take a "certain latitude" with staid perceptions of reality. In fact, some of the best writing in the collection comes from realistic vignettes that Harrell scatters throughout the book. In these short pieces, Harrell demonstrates his skill at being what we Mormons might call a "wise steward" of his words. For example, in the best of the vignettes, "Do Not Mix with Bleach," Harrell captures the loneliness of his main character in a simple 18 word sentence: "He loved her with a young love that strikes him now as having been a kind of despair" (153).

In my opinion, however, the best stories in the collection are those that abide by Harrell’s house rules. For instance, “Calling and Election,” the final story in the book, draws upon the conventions of the Faust legend and Hawthornian morality tales to tell the story of a Seminary teacher, Jerry, whose internal struggles with Satan become disturbingly external when he comes in contact with a mysterious man named Brother Lucy. At times, the story seems undeniably grounded in reality, while at other times it is entirely unclear whether what is happening is real or something more akin to Young Goodman Brown’s dream. It is a disturbing tale with unsettling implications for sincere followers of Christ. More than any other story in A Sense of Order, it reflects the "exposed and dangerous regions" of the human soul:

Jerry reached for Brother Lucy's hand and in a moment he landed on his back, prostrate in the water, thrashing and gasping in a panic as Brother Lucy held him under, his knee on Jerry's chest, shoving Jerry deeper and deeper under the current. The pain in his head, like a black cloud of devils, disoriented him. Then, just as quickly as he had pushed him under, Brother Lucy puled Jerry to his feet and shouted, "Are you giving up? If you're going to give up, spare us all and do it now" (211-212).

Most stories in A Sense of Order, of course, are not as intense as "Calling and Election," although a majority of them do tend to unsettle more than they reassure. One notable exception, perhaps, is "A Prophet's Story," an incredibly funny tale about what happens when a LDS Church president dons a light blue tracksuit and a fake beard to buy a garden hose and Almond Joy at a Walmart in a poorer area of west Salt Lake. While the premise might strike some as disrespectful and inappropriate, the story doesn't really come off that way. In fact, what makes A Sense of Order--for me--an important work of Mormon literature is in the way it captures (in order to subvert) the simple, innocent voice of Mormon didactic fiction. As I read these stories, I recognized something in them that reminded me of the stories I would read in the New Era when I was a teenager. Like those stories--and Hawthorne's--Harrell's stories have a moral to them, even though the moral is often clouded over by ambiguity. In many ways, I like to think of A Sense of Order as a kind of post-Home Literature collection of New Era stories that have grown up and experienced more of the Lone and Dreary World. In them, things aren't as clear cut as they used to be, and there are no easy answers, but God's plan remains a guiding light.

Is it perfect? No. For example, the well-intentioned "Godsight," about a man who is able to see people the way God sees them, strikes me as being a little too emotionally forced. Others, like "Tregan's Mettle," are good, despite some clunky writing ("Some said the king the Mormon pioneers had in mind was Jesus Christ, who'd visited Joseph Smith and told him to start a new Church" [4]). Still, in my opinion, stories like "A Sense of Order," "Grandma Ruckman's Dream," "The Trestle," "Jerome and the Ends of the Universe," "A Prophet's Story," and "Calling and Election" make up for any apparent flaws in this collection.

A Sense of Order, after all, is fiction that takes us to the edge of the plain of the Lone and Dreary World, that "exposed and dangerous region" between us and something we hope will be infinitely better.

My recommendation is this: Don't be like Bonneville's scouts and play the "lame horse" card. Open the book and step out onto the plain.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Polygamy Novel for People Who Hate Polygamy Novels: A Review of Brady Udall's "The Lonely Polygamist"

I hate novels about polygamy.

If you've read one, you've read them all. Perverted old men. Teenage brides. Bitter old women. Compounds. Prairie dresses. Incest. Rape. Fear. Oppression.

I don't know what it's like living in a polygamous society, so I can't judge the accuracy of the typical polygamy novel. I've also never had much interaction with polygamists, although I once worked with a guy who had grown up in a polygamist group. He was pretty forthcoming with the details, and none of them was flattering.

That said, I've also heard that polygamist groups vary, that not all of them are like, say, the notorious group in Short Creek/Colorado City. Again, I can't say. I don't really know.

Which is funny, I guess, because I am a Mormon and I share spiritual roots with these groups, even though my ancestors haven't lived "the Principle" since the turn of the last century.

Funny, but not surprising. We mainstream Mormons don't really like to be associated with our polygamous cousins, and we exert every effort to prove to the world (particularly that part of it that works with us or lives next door) how different we are from them. Recently, Mormons have even become one of the staunchest defenders of traditional marriage, which would have mystified our monogamy-mocking forebears one hundred and fifty years ago.

Of course, as we distance ourselves from polygamists, we reduce them to stereotypes, to the villainous other, because it makes it easier to establish and assert difference. In the process, though, we forget (or can forget) that these are real people, with real relationship bonds, who value and find meaning in polygamy.

Few polygamy novels, I think, take that last point seriously, which is why Brady Udall's recent novel, The Lonely Polygamist (Norton, 2010) stands out to me. Nowhere in this novel will you find a perverted old man, teenage bride, prairie dress, or any of the other token elements of modern polygamy narratives. Nor will you find any instances of rape or incest. The Lonely Polygamist is a novel for people who don't like polygamy novels.

Essentially, The Lonely Polygamist is "the story of a polygamist who has an affair," which we learn in the very first sentence (15). Golden Richards, the main character, has four wives, twenty-eight children, three homes, a dog, a couch that smells funny, and plenty of personal issues. He also has church responsibilities and a construction business that keeps him away from home most of the week.

And, yeah...he's in love with his boss's wife.

As a polygamist, Golden's life is already too complicated for him to handle. His various responsibilities have worn him down to a state of emotional and spiritual stagnation. To complicate matters even more, he is still mourning the death of his daughter, Glory, whose accidental death was largely his fault. When he begins his affair with his boss's wife, which really isn't much of an affair in the Hollywood sense, it is because he hates who he has become: an ineffective and emotionally distant husband and father, an indecisive and unsuccessful provider, and a lousy polygamist.

At 599 pages, The Lonely Polygamist has a lot to say and a lot going on. In Golden, for example, Udall addresses the state of American masculinity at the end of the twentieth century (and, by proxy, the beginning of the twenty-first). Golden's struggles--to provide, to be there for his family, to be assertive and decisive, to be just as tough as he is compassionate--are struggles that typically beset men, especially Mormon men, in post-John Wayne America. Golden, in this sense, is an Everyman with Everyman problems--only they are exaggerated with polygamy in the mix. Mostly, he feels--like most men, I imagine--that someone else could better fill his shoes: "someone stouthearted [...], someone wise and resolute and strong, a man of faith, a good father, someone not like him" (517).

Obviously, Golden isn't much of a hero. Still, Udall's characterization of him and his situation is sympathetic. In fact, that is one of the best aspects of this novel: it's sympathy. Many of its characters, such as Golden's son Rusty, are the socially awkward, misfit types. Rusty is a heavy-set twelve-year-old with a big imagination and a thing for romance novels and nice underwear. Easily, Udall could have made Rusty a stock character--just another funny fat kid--but he doesn't; instead, he gives Rusty the dignity of being human. In fact, it is in Rusty's loneliness, his desire to be accepted, and his recklessly insightful commentary on his family that we find the heart of the novel.

This sympathy extends even to minor characters, like Maureen Sinkfoyle, a young widow who hopes to become the next Mrs. Richards. Like Rusty, Maureen provides some comic relief for the novel, and she could have easily been merely a caricature: a pathetically desperate woman in a "thrift store dress and muddy sling-back shoes"--someone worthy of little more than our laughter and ridicule. But Udall's depiction of her, small as it is, lets us see her as a victim of her strange situation and demanding society, a "a cast-off, someone tossed aside in favor of the new, the fresh, the less complicated," a woman "running on her last fumes of hope" (493).

Even polygamy is treated sympathetically, which is rare for polygamy fiction. To some extent, in fact, the novel even lauds polygamy’s fundamental principle: that love is not something that needs limitation. For Golden and his wives, “love [is] no finite commodity […] subject to the cruel reckoning of addition and subtraction.” Rather, it is something that comes from a heart that “[can] open itself to all who [will] enter, like a house with windows and doors thrown wide, like the heart of God itself, vast and accommodating and holy, a mansion of rooms without number, full of multitudes without end” (545-46).

To be sure, The Lonely Polygamist does not address fully how polygamy’s fundamental gender inequality troubles that way of thinking about love: Golden, after all, can open his heart to many women, but his wives can only open their hearts to him and their children. Still, the novel does more than simply reduce polygamy to an old man’s sex drive, which helps to humanize those—men and women—who choose this lifestyle and value how it enriches their lives.

And it's not like the women in this novel are powerless to Golden's authority. For much of the novel, they are actually trying to get him to be more authoritative, “to take control, to embrace his God-given patriarchal authority, to […] make a decision once in a while” (553). Oddly, when Golden finally does begin to be a part of his family again, something of equality exists between him and his wives, and the family comes to have no dominate leader.

As I mentioned before, this novel has a lot going on in it. In addition to polygamy, it also addresses the nuclear bomb testing that ravaged Utah and its rural communities in the 1950s, when Golden and his first wife, Beverly, were married. In Golden's congregation, there is a pew called the "Row of Angels," which is reserved for handicapped children whose birth defects trace back to the fallout. Also, at the end of the novel, we learn that Beverly has lung cancer, another unforeseen outcome of the tests. Among other things, the addition of these details is another reminder that rash actions, whether on the national or family level, have unintended consequences that frequently harm those who deserve them least.

Before I end this review, I should note that the main criticism Mormons have leveled against this novel is that it has too much swearing and sexual content. It's true. The Lonely Polygamist does not adhere to the CleanFlicks Aesthetic, so it's not for everyone. It's content is pretty typical of other contemporary American novels.

With that said, I think the novel is one of the best examples of Contemporary Mormon fiction, even though its aesthetic is somewhat different from other works of Mormon fiction. If nothing else, it reminds us that deep down even the strangest among us are...well...mostly normal.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Some Thoughts on Mormon Historical Fiction

This week I finished Edward P. Jones's historical novel The Known World, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2003. It's the first non-Mormon novel I've read this year, and I'd recommend it to anyone who is interested in slavery fiction.

Of course, even as I was reading The Known World, I couldn't help thinking how unfortunate it is that we have nothing like it in Mormon literature. Jones's novel, after all, is endlessly complex in the way it handles character and setting, and, like much of contemporary American literature, it abandons the coherence of linear storytelling in favor of a chronology that emerge gradually, in pieces, like the image on a puzzle. It is not, therefore, only about the narrative, but also about how we arrange the past in order to construct history.

Mormon literature, to be sure, has no lack of historical fiction. Over the past two decades, in fact, the Mormon historical novel has developed into one of Mormon literature's most successful genres. If you don't believe me, take an informal poll of how many members in your local LDS ward have a complete collection of the The Work and the Glory series tucked between a Harry Potter box set and a marble bust of Joseph Smith as Fitzwilliam Darcy.

I hate to say it, though, but a lot of Mormon historical fiction bores me. One reason why, I think, is that so much of it relies on the comforts of linear storytelling, which tends to lead to the kind of predictability that often plagues historical fiction. In my opinion, the archive, not the textbook should be historical fiction's paradigm.

And Mormon historical fiction would do well to populate its pages with characters who talk and think and act in ways that suit their settings. If a novel is set in 1860s Utah, the Mormon characters shouldn't talk like their twenty-first century counterparts. Fortunately, Mormons have always been journal keepers, so there are plenty of dusty records of early Mormons out there to help with authenticity.

Which brings me to my last point. About two years ago, I found the pioneer journal of my great-great-great grandfather on a bookshelf in my parents home. Between accounts of his never-ending struggles with his wives and the occasional missionary labor, I founds descriptions of his visions and encounters with otherworldly beings--both good and evil. These passages in his journal fascinated me, and they led me to believe that my visionary ancestor was somehow unique. I have since discovered, however, that he was rather typical. Early Mormons, it seems, saw a lot of strange stuff. Sundry visits from the Three Nephites and Cain don't even begin to scratch the surface.

Yet, if otherworldliness was no uncommon part of the pioneer experience, why don't we see more of it in realistic Mormon historical fiction? Personally, I'd like to see more of it.

(I should state, by the way, that Angela Hallstrom's short story "Unbroken"--published as "Christina" in Bound on Earth--is a great example of the kind of visionary realism I'm trying to describe here. When I first read it, I felt like Simeon forty days after Christmas.)

I need to write a paper on Emily Dickinson, so I'm going to stop here--even though I've got more to say on the subject. I'll have to save it for another post. Until then, I'll be on the lookout for good Mormon historical fiction.

If you have any recommendations, let me know.