My class “American Religious Landscapes” begins in less than two months, so I am in the process of re-reading Dispensation and selecting “teachable” stories. As I mentioned in aprevious post, I’m only going to spend a week (or three fifty-minute classes) in the anthology, so I’ll only be able to assign six or seven stories. I haven’t narrowed my selection down yet, but Levi Peterson’s “Brothers,” Larry Menlove’s “Who Brought Forth This Christmas Demon,” Darrell Spencer’s “Blood Work,” Angela Hallstrom’s “Thanksgiving,” and Douglas Thayer’s “Wolves” will probably make the cut. I had originally planned to include Orson Scott Card’s “Christmas at Helaman’s House,” but then I read the story, felt it went on thirteen pages longer than it needed to, and decided against it.
I’ve selected these stories, and not others, for a few reasons. First, I think they reflect the interaction between religion and landscape, or religion and geography, that is the focus of my class. I like, for example, how the avenues in Salt Lake City are featured so prominently in “Blood Work,” how they evoke the sense of order that Mormonism tries to wrestle out of the chaotic natural world. I also like how “Wolves” is, in many ways, a story about leaving an insular religious landscape and facing the dangers lurking beyond its borders.
Second, I think the stories mentioned above are more teachable than other stories in the collection. Stephen Tuttle’s “The Weather Here” and Jack Harrell’s “Calling and Election,” for instance, may be excellent stories, but I get a headache thinking how I would even begin to teach them to students coming from largely Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. Both stories, it seems to me, rely so heavily on prior knowledge of Mormon theology that I worry students will either not “get” them or simply misread them. Of course, that sort of thing happens all the time in literature classes, and I know misreading often reveals great new insights, but I’d rather give students stories about concrete Mormon experiences they can grasp. Besides, who’s really up to the task of leading a classroom discussion of “Calling and Election” with thirty or so non-Mormon freshman?
I’m certainly not.
Then there’s a story like Lisa Torcasso Downing’s “Clothing Esther,” which is probably one of the best stories about Mormon women I have ever read. On the surface, it’s a story that is fairly grounded in a common, concrete Mormon experience: the final dressing of a dead Mormon woman in her temple clothing. Beyond that, the story also touches on human relationships, particularly that between the mother and daughter-in-law, and some common Mormon themes: eternal marriage, family, sin, repentance, community, and mortality. Because other religions and belief systems have sacred clothing and share similar interests in things like marriage and sin, I don’t think “Clothing Esther” is an unteachable story. Spend thirty minutes on it with a group of non-Mormon freshmen who have just spent a week studying Mormon literature and I doubt you’ll lose anyone. Except maybe the kid who spends the entire class texting.
Still, as concrete as the story is, it’s also deeply embedded in the Mormon temple experience, which is concrete enough for temple-going Mormons, but something of a mystery to everybody else. Temple scenes, of course, are not unheard of in Mormon fiction. In the nineteenth century, for example, they were an essential (and deliberately terrifying) part of any anti-Mormon novel. But the temple rarely gets its due in Mormon fiction, either because it’s presented exposé-style, as we see in Brian Evenson’s The Torn Curtain or David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife, or because it’s presented so abstractly or vaguely that we end up feeling the same way we do when a returned missionary enthusiastically describes an exotic food: we know it must be really, really, really good, but having never tasted it ourselves, we don’t know why.
“Clothing Esther” breaks from this tradition, in some ways, to offer readers some insight into the Mormon temple experience and its meaning to the women who participate in them. For Mary, the main character of the story, the temple experience seems to center on the Initiatory portion of the Endowment ceremony, possibly the only Mormon ordinance in which the genders are wholly segregated. Because Downing is aware that not all of her readers know the temple experience, and possibly to make the story more teachable, she provides this paragraph:
Inside each Mormon temple is a place which is like no other—a quiet veiled-in space where initiate blessings are granted, woman to woman; a place where two sisters in faith, two strangers, stand before one another, look one another in the eye and touch one soul against the other, fingertip to flesh, and repeat the words of a blessing and an anointing, the undefiled intimacy of which reflects the very depths of God’s eternal love for woman, and through her, for all his children. And Mary has been there. (268)
While this paragraph is admittedly abstract and vague in terms of describing the actual ordinance, it is quite explicit about the significance and meaning of the experience for those involved in it, especially Mary. Moreover, against the larger context of the story, it also makes the Initiatory ordinance a metaphor for powerful female relationships within Mormonism, especially between women like Mary and Esther, her mother-in-law. The story, after all, is primarily about the way Mormon women stand in relation to each other, rather than to men, which is often the case in feminist Mormon literature. Esther stands before Mary rather than beside her.
Significantly, before suggests a face to face positioning, as we see in Downing’s description of the Initiatory, as well as a leader/follower positioning, which accurately characterizes Mary’s relationship with her mother-in-law. Throughout her life, Mary notes, Esther was the one who guided her path, “who taught her how,” often in a hands-on/hearts-on way. It is fitting, therefore, that Downing concludes her story with Mary choosing to think about the Initiatory ordinance, as well as the relationship between mother and child, rather than experience the “nightmare” of watching “her friends jointly push, pull, and shove the woman she loves into position amenable to dressing a corpse” (273, 274). For Mary, the Initiatory and motherhood are moments of “undefiled intimacy” where women can be before each other in every sense of the word. In many ways, they are the antithesis of the reverential and respectful—but undeniably coercive—defiled intimacy being played out over the corpse of her mother-in-law.
Think I can convey that to a class of non-Mormon college Freshmen?
Hence my dilemma: “Judging Esther” is one of my favorite stories in Dispensation, but I’m not planning on including it on my syllabus in the spring. Yes, I think the story is teachable, but I worry that teaching it would ultimately prove unsatisfactory. As a teacher, I want to take my students as far into a text as they can go, and since “Judging Esther” is grounded in the concrete and Downing takes the time to teach the reader about the temple and its meaning within Mormon society, I don’t think students would struggle as much with the story as they would with, say, “Calling and Election.”
But, lacking experience with Mormonism and the temple, would they be able to delve deep enough into the story to make it worth their while? Would they be able to grasp the significance of the Initiatory ordinance enough for the story to resonate with them? Or would they only kind of get it the way I, a white Mormon suburbanite in the twenty-first century, only kind of get a novel like Invisible Man--or, for that matter, most of the other stories and novels we'll be reading in the class?
 Someday I need to write a post about my love/hate relationship with Orson Scott Card and his writing style.
 If not the best.
 With this in mind, it’s not altogether surprising that Downing named her characters Mary and Esther after prominent and powerful women in the Bible.
 And let me complicate matters further: to what extent do I, as a Mormon man, hit my own wall of understanding as I read "Clothing Esther"?