Sunday, September 30, 2012

Free E-Book: Nephi Anderson's "Almina" (1891)

I've made my first Mormon literature e-book: Nephi Anderson's 1891 novella "Almina."

"Almina" was Anderson's first published attempt at long fiction. It was serialized in The Contributor from November 1891 to May 1892 while Anderson was serving his mission in Norway. Although he rarely mentioned his fiction in his mission journal, he had this to say on December 23, 1891:

"Yesterday received news and papers from home. "Contributor" No. 1 of Vol. 13 Containing 'Almina'."

The title was underlined with a squiggly line. I guess that means he was excited.

The Kindle (.mobi) file for "Almina" can be downloaded here. The Nook (.ePub) file is here.

Let me know if you have any trouble.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Ruined City--John Lyon

Below is John Lyon's elegy for Nauvoo, "The Ruined City." I'm usually not a fan of poetry that runs longer than fifteen lines, but I found this particular poem fascinating for the way it laments the fall of Nauvoo and uses it as a symbol for all of Mormonism's past setbacks. I also like how it contrasts the Zionic-utopian ideals upon which the city was founded with the debauchery of the mob and the fallen world. In it, I hear an echo of a longing for a lost Zion that I think runs through much of Mormon literature--even today.

I'd also say that I think it shares some DNA with Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, but since I've not reviewed either poem in some time, I'll leave it as a suggestion or a possibility. 

The Ruined City
by John Lyon
(from The Harp of Zion, 1853)

Alas ! and is this far-famed city doomed
To be the residence of ruffian men ;
The monument of mad sectarian ire,
Where dwelt, or sought to dwell, in peace secure,
The gathered thousands of the latter-day
The Saints !
                        But why deserted thus ? 'tis strange
That chosen men should perish by the sword,
And vanquish'd, leave their dear-bought homes,
And cultured fields, to blood-stained, murd'rous men.
Alas, Nauvoo ! fair city of the Seer !
Thy streets, where once the busy throng were wont
To glide, are now o'er-grown with grass and weeds ;
Thy doorless, paneless houses, mournful wail,
Deep sighs, now gossiped by the gusty wind ;
The wood-huts torn away, now leave no mark
Where once their frame-work stood, save chimney stalk
Peering alone, like gravestones o'er the dead.
Alas ! had God forgotten to be kind ?
Was not this city built His purpose to
Fulfil, and found his Kingdom last of all
Upon this earth ? Was not this Temple reared,
Wherein the secrets of eternity
Might be made known, though now a ruined mass !

            Here riot revels undisturbed, and here
Debauch'ry's florid, sin-provoking face
Reveals the recklessness of lawless life
Alike regardless of all law, they brave
Stern justice, decency, and natural right.
Heavens ! and this that Zion once was called,
Has now become a hell of lawless fiends.

            The grove ! where erst the hymn of praise was sung,
Is now the haunt of ribaldry and jest ;
And where the words of Inspiration flowed
From holy men, is now the fane of lust,
And frothy, sacrilegious mirth.

            And has this place, where honest men once lived,
Become a den of uncaged, unclean birds I
Whose frontal visage wears the cursed mark
Of Cain ! No business tells their love of frugal life,
Then- fields, unploughed, the sluggard's harvest bear,
And squalid wretches their ill-earn'd pay,
Proclaim their envy, idleness, and want ;
But deadlier than the crime of Cain, they've shed
The purest blood e'er flow'd in human vein,
Save the immaculate Son of God ! yes,
Joseph, thou wert slain, and Hyrum with thoo
Fell, by the assassins' deadly rifle ball !
While others with thee shared a lesser doom,
Though marr'd, were sav'd by time's preventing hand
To give their evidence, in time to come,
Of martyred men who fell for heaven-born Truth.
And thus, thy curse, thy blasting withering curse,
Shall cease not, till thy ruin woeful tells
A living, lingering death, more frightful far
Than Carthage, or old Sodom's awful doom ;
Yes, strange to tell, thou'lt be the first to rise
When dire destruction, and the scourging rod
Have swept, and cleans'd pollution from the earth.

            Here rest the ashes of the martyred dead,
Whose lives were spent in Truth's eternal cause ;
In perils oft 'mong would-be friends and foes,
Scorned by the world, and like the hunted roe,
Panted in seclusion from the chase of
Bloodhounds bearing human form, to breathe and
Run again, 'till the envenomed world
Shed their pure blood, and " chased them up to Heaven."
Alas ! but why should error triumph ? why
Should they whom God had sent to save, be left
To fall ? Hush, reason reft of Revelation, hear !
'Twas all foreknown that they to whom this tale
Should come, would treat their message with contempt ;
And by their death and testimony seal
The Priesthood, and its power, and farther spread
The heaven-born Truth. E'en this bleak ruin gave
The tell-tale echo to a slumbering world,
That fame's loud trump nor thousand tongues could reach.
And thou Nauvoo, the first of stakes, though spoiled,
Art writ, and sealed in the archives of Heaven.,
And shall come forth, in primal glory crowned,
And flourish in celestial bloom, when Saints
Shall reign, and Christ and God be all in all.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Richard Cracroft: An Authentic Mormon Voice--A Low-Tech Tribute

“Present-day readers, writers, and critics of Mormon literature and members of the Association for Mormon Letters are part of what amounts to the first generation of critics of a nascent Mormon literature. We are likewise weaving and identifying--privileging--and scrutizining this aborning Mormon literature to trace a ‘[larger] web of [deeper] significance,’ which--if truly Mormon--is being woven out of the stuff of Mormonism and spun across a Mormon world view interlaced with Mormon essences, those often ethereal but real, ineffable but inevitable spiritual analogues and correspondences that convey Mormon realities, and without a sense of which no literature could be essentially Mormon. Such is at least part of the responsibility of the Mormon critic.”
--Richard Cracroft, 1992

Yesterday I received news that Richard Cracroft, a pioneer in Mormon literary criticism, died at the age of 76. During his long career as an English professor at Brigham Young University, he served as department head, dean of the College of Humanities, director of the American Studies program and Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature, and editor of Literature and Belief. In other contexts, he served as president for the Association for Mormon Letters and the mission president for the Switzerland Zurich Mission.

As a critic and one of Mormon literary studies’ Nine Old Men, he is best known for his essay “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature,” which encourages Mormon writers to preserve the living, spiritual “essences” of Mormonism in their writing. He is also known for his collaboration with Neal E. Lambert on the anthologies A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints (1974) and 22 Young Mormon Writers (1975), and for his monthly “Book Nook” column in BYU Magazine, which raised greater awareness about lesser known works of Mormon literature from publishers like Signature, Zarahemla, and Parables.

Sadly, I never knew Professor Cracroft personally—although I believe he gave my dad a C in freshman composition. His writing first came to my attention about a decade ago in a BYU religion class for English majors taught by David Paxman. At the time, I was still trying to reconcile the two most powerful influences on my life, literature and the gospel, which always seemed incompatible until I read “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice” for a class assignment. The essay introduced me to what seemed like a voice in the wilderness—a faithful Saint who saw no problem with alluding to Prufrock and Corianton in the same paragraph. As I got to know his writing more—his essays “Rendering the Ineffable Effable” or “Nephi, Seer of Modern Times,” for example—I learned that the literature and the gospel are hardly warring factions, but branches on the same tree. Rather than incompatible, they were complimentary.

So my place in the universe became less troublesome because of Richard Cracroft. His writing—and his life—showed that one could read complex, challenging texts—texts that some might deem “inappropriate” or “immoral”—and still maintain the Spirit, serve in the Church, and be an exemplar Latter-day Saint. In my heart, it was always something that I knew was possible and wanted to believe, but still something I was unsure of until I found a role model in Richard Cracroft.

Of course, I’ve had my issues with Cracroft’s criticism. Often, when I quote him in an essay or a blog post, I do so to argue with and contradict his ideas. (Bruce Jorgensen, it seems, also had the same problem!) Last month, for example, as I read through “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice” again, I bristled at his notion of a Mormon essence, which goes against most of my own notions about Mormon identities and experiences. I also found myself disagreeing with his assessment of Nephi Anderson’s The Story of Chester Lawrence, a novel I enjoyed, which Cracroft dismissed as one of Anderson’s weaker works. But this was not a new experience for me: I’ve often found myself disliking books that Cracroft actively endorsed—The Work and the Glory, On the Road to Heaven—and liking books he didn’t—Harvest, The Backslider. Even so, I have to credit Cracroft for his opinions. I’d rather have someone to disagree with over this or that Mormon novel or poem than no one at all. And we have agreed on some, like John St. John and The Death of a Disco Dancer.

For me, Cracroft’s greatest legacy is his staunch advocacy for Mormon literature, which he carried on until the day he died.  Through him—his essays, his speeches, his “Book Nook”—countless people, including me, have become aware of the joy and richness of “Mormon literature.” I can honestly say that I would not be where I am today, doing what I do, were it not for the words of Richard Cracroft, a man I’ve never met. My best hope is that he is now receiving—perhaps in the great libraries and reading rooms of Spirit Paradise—a warm welcome from the Mormon men and women of letters who have gone before.

May his example continue to guide us in our efforts here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Four Centuries of Mormon Stories" Contest

If you are a creative writer, this is for you. Everyday Mormon Writer (or 2/3 of the Mormon Lit Blitz teamis holding a flash fiction contest called "Four Centuries of Mormon Stories." Entries are due next Monday, September 24th. You should do everything in your power to enter and win. (Unless you are intimidated by the fact that I've submitted three stories of my own.)   

Here are the rules and contest details from the Everyday Mormon Writer website:

We are looking for fiction of any genre depicting Mormon life during any point in the 19th, 20th, 21st, or 22nd century.

Deadline: September 24, 2012 at 11:59 pm Mountain Time.  [Note: the deadline was initially listed as 17 Sept, but has been extended to better accommodate editors' schedules.]

Length: Entries should be fun to read in a single sitting online. Entries may be as long as 2,000 words, but preference will be given to entries under 1,000 words.

Submission instructions: Each entry should be submitted separately by email to everydaymormon at gmail dot com.  The subject line of the email should include the words “contest submission” and specify which century the submission depicts. For example: “Contest Submission: 22nd Century.” No cover letter in the body of the email is necessary, since selection of the finalists will be blind, but authors should include their contact information. 

Below their contact information, authors should paste the text of their entry–no attachments, please.

Submission limits: Each author may submit no more than three stories in a single century category. Theoretically, an author could submit up to twelve stories by writing three in each of the contest centuries (though we will be both surprised and impressed if anyone manages to do so).

Prize: As of 12 July 2012, the total prize package for this contest is $170. [I think this has now climbed to something like $350.54!) We are still accepting contributions to the final prize on our main Contest page and will give periodic updates on the size of the prize package.

Rights: By submitting, authors guarantee Everyday Mormon Writer non-exclusive internet publication rights. If selected as finalists, authors also guarantee Everyday Mormon Writer limited one-time rights to produce commemorative prints of their story for certain contest donors.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Neutral Ground?: Nephi Anderson and Race

A popular strain of Mormon folk doctrine throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries maintained that men of African descent were barred from the priesthood because of the neutral stance they took during Satan’s uprising in the premortal life. While never officially or universally accepted by church members, the doctrine nevertheless found support in high places. As late as 1939, for example, Elder George F. Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve alluded to it in the church’s General Conference:

I cannot conceive our Father consigning his children to a condition such as that of the negro race, if they had been valiant in the spirit world in that war in heaven. Neither could they have been a part of those who rebelled and were cast down, for the latter had not the privilege of tabernacling in the flesh. Somewhere along the line were these spirits, indifferent perhaps, and possibly neutral in the war. We have no definite knowledge concerning this. But I learn this lesson from it, brethren and sisters, and I believe we all should, that it does not pay in religious matters, matters that pertain to our eternal salvation, to be indifferent, neutral, or lukewarm. (59)

Among those who actively repudiated this teaching—while still affirming the rightness of the priesthood ban—was Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, Richard’s contemporary and fellow apostle. Fifteen years before Richards’ sermon, Smith had argued that while it was “reasonable” to think that “the spirits of the premortal state were of varying degrees of intelligence and faithfulness,” it “[entered] too much on the realm of speculation” to believe that “certain nations” were “cursed because of their acts in the pre-existence” (565). Such was also the opinion of Elder John A. Widtsoe, another early twentieth-century apostle, who wrote against the folk doctrine in the Improvement Era twenty years later—a length of time that speaks to the staying power of the folk doctrine (see 385). Many Mormons, it seems, simply found the explanation too convincing—and convenient—to abandon.

Contributing, perhaps, to its staying power was Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon, the most popular depiction of the premortal life to come out of Mormon culture at the turn of the twentieth century. Anderson no doubt knew about the teaching, and possibly even accepted it as truth at some point in his life, so it would not be surprising if Added Upon showed traces of this folk belief on its pages.  Interestingly, though, the first part of the novel, which deals with pre-mortality, has only this to say about neutral spirits during the War in Heaven:

Then there were others, not valiant in either cause, who stood on neutral ground. Without strength of character to come out boldly, they aided neither the right nor the wrong. Weak-minded as they were, they could not be trusted, nor could Lucifer win them over. (18-19)

The novel reveals nothing further about these neutral spirits or the consequences of their neutrality. Prior to his departure for earth-life, however, Homan, one of Anderson’s pre-mortal protagonists, makes a speech in which he glories in the opportunities mortality provides:

“We have been taught that we shall get that position to which our preparation here entitles us. Existence is eternal, and its various stages grade naturally into one another, like the different departments of a school.”
            “Some have been ordained to certain positions of trust. Father knows us all, and understands what we will do. Many of our mighty ones have already gone, and many are yet with us awaiting Father’s will.” (27)

As this speech indicates, Homan believes that one’s place in mortality is determined by one’s pre-mortal “preparation,” which qualifies individuals to “certain positions of trust.” While nothing about neutrality and race has an ostensible place in this discourse, the notion that one’s place in mortality is based on merit could easily be carried through to racist conclusions. Anderson may or may not have believed the folk teaching about the premortal origins of black skin—my research into the matter has been inconclusive—but his novel certainly provided nothing to disarm those who did.    

My intention, of course, is not to label Anderson and Added Upon as racist, but merely to point out that Added Upon contributed to an understanding of the pre-mortal life that accommodated existing racist folk beliefs. In his other writings, Anderson focused solely of white characters and largely avoided representations of non-white peoples—although they occasionally appear at the margins of his storytelling. For example, Native Americans are objects of respect, anxiety, and some derision for Anderson’s characters. In John St. John (1917), the titular character gains new admiration for them when he reads the Book of Mormon and learns that they are the remnants of “a civilized people” who “were a branch of the Hebrew race” (9). Also, when he hears Dora, his love interest, express her fears about the dangers of Native Americans, he expresses the opinion that “Indians can do no worse” than what “so-called civilized men” have done (133). We find a similar treatment in The Boys of Springtown (1920), although in a much more whimsical mode. In this novel, the Native Americans are on friendly terms with the fictional Utah village of Springtown, yet exposure to the “tales of wild Indians” in dime novels have made them alluring objects of fear and danger in the eyes of the local boys (43). Indeed, Anderson capitalizes on the effects of this misrepresentation to poke fun at his young white characters and expose their nascent racism:

There had been some discussion whether it would be wise to take along such a weapon when visiting Indians. The Redmen might think the fire-arm was meant for them, when in fact, it was only to shoot sage-hens, should any be seen. “Anyway,” Ned had said, “it might be a good thing to have a gun along in case the Indians became ‘sassy’.” (35)

At the same time, Anderson’s works themselves are not innocent of racist stereotypes and pejoratives. In The Boys of Springville, Native American women are “squaws” who beg for “sooger” and “biscuit” while the Indian men gamble, scowl, and make “gruff noises” (40-41). In John St. John and Dorian (1921), the titular characters name their horses “Nig” and “Old Nig” respectively. Like many of his time, including Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anderson expressed a degree of prejudice and racial insensitivity that grates on today’s readers.

Yet, like Twain and Fitzgerald, Anderson’s prejudices were intertwined with a potent sense of justice, equality, and tolerance. In John St. John, he subtly equates the plight of the Mormons in Missouri with those of racially marginalize groups when he has a bigoted mobber tell John that “in this state there are two classes of people: ‘Mormons’ an’ whites” (39). Elsewhere, a Mormon shames a Missourian who kidnaps Joseph Smith by calling him—not unproblematically—an unmannerly “nigger-driver,” implying that the Missourian is guilty of the dual sins of kidnapping and slavery (105).  As associate editor of the Millennial Star, Anderson also frequently promoted justice and equality in his editorials, although almost always in regards to the rights of religions and creeds to preach and assemble without molestation. In a 1906 editorial entitled “The Larger Nationality,” however, he condemns the narrowness of Henrik Ibsen’s avowed Teutonism and asks:

Why stop at Teutonism? Are not other races our brothers and sisters, inasmuch as all are children of one common Father? Why should one's love, sympathy, and fellowship be limited to any part of this earth or any portion of its inhabitants? The mind that grows under the benign influence of the Spirit of God soon gets rid of arbitrary boundaries of race or geography. He is not satisfied with the little plot of ground marked off on the earth and called "his country"; but in every land and clime where there are souls honest and true there are also his country and his kin. (“The Larger Nationality” 152)

To what extent this statement informs on Anderson’s approach to interpersonal relationships with his “brothers and sisters” of “other races” is unknown since his minimalistic journals and letters are silent on the matter. At the publication of this editorial, John St. John and The Boys of Springtown were still to be written, suggesting that his universalism was not without spot as he matured as a writer and artist. Nevertheless, it is to his credit that he never used his fiction to promote--at least overtly--the racist folk beliefs of his day, which is more than can be said about some later Mormon novels, like Emma Marr Petersen's Choose Ye This Day (1956). So too is his constant advocacy for a place of respect for Mormonism in the national and global stage. Indeed, in this respect, his novels are not unlike those of his African- and Native American contemporaries, which likewise used the genre to call attention to the ills of prejudice and injustice.

Anderson, Nephi. Added Upon. 1898. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1939. Print.
---. The Boys of Springtown. Independence, MO: Press of Zion Printing and Publishing Company, 1920. Print.
---. John St. John. 1917. Print.
---. “The Larger Nationality.” Millennial Star 68.10 (1906): 152. Print.
Richards, George F. “Punishment of Those Not Valiant.” Conference Report, April 1939, 59.
Smith, Joseph Fielding. “The Negro and the Priesthood.” Improvement Era 27.6 (1924): 565.
Widtsoe, John A. “Evidences and Reconciliations” Improvement Era 47.6 (1944): 385.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Deleted Illustrations from Nephi Anderson's "Romance of a Missionary" (1919)

These illustrations appear in the proof sheets of Nephi Anderson's 1919 novel Romance of a Missionary but not in the published version. Why Anderson decided to cut them (notice the Xs over the illustrations) is unknown. Elsewhere in the proofs are several photographs of European locations mentioned in the narrative, which appear in the final cut, but no other illustrations based on the characters in the novel. It could be that Anderson initially wanted more illustrations like these, but negotiations for them fell through or they cost too much. Or it could be that Anderson was dissatisfied with their quality, or felt that they contrasted too sharply with the photographs and compromised the uniformity of the novel's look. 

Your guess is as good as mine. Personally, I like them. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Home Call--Nephi Anderson, 1906

The Home Call
(On Receiving an Honorable Release to Return Home)
Millennial Star 68.35 (1906): 560

The charm of England’s smiling fields,
Of Scotland’s hills and lochs between,
OF Ireland’s stretch of cooling green,
To homeland’s stronger summons yields.

A gray-sage reach of barren plain,
A Wild aroma of the hills,
A gentle murmur of the rills—
These draw me westward once again.

Away from man and man’s control,
Among eternal solitudes,
I dwelt so near to Nature’s moods,
So near to Nature’s very soul.

The spell yet holds, where’er I roam;
Nor tow’ring cities, busy marts,
With all that wealth or art imparts,
Can break the charm that draws me home.

My home is desert-girt, I know—
The stars by night, the sun by day
Sine down upon the dusty way—
And yet it calls, and I must go.

Liverpool, August, 1906                     Nephi Anderson

Friday, September 7, 2012

Nephi Anderson, Deseret Industries, and Making the Most Out of a Ten Dollar Bill

I bought this today for ten bucks at the Provo DI.

John St. John is my least favorite Nephi Anderson book, but I figured that owning a first edition of any Anderson book that isn't Added Upon would be pretty cool. (Heck, I'd be okay with owning a first edition of Added Upon too.)

The neat thing is that I got to use it as a visual aid as I spoke briefly about Anderson and my research to John Bennion's "Literature of the LDS" class at BYU today. About a week ago, I emailed Dr. Bennion to see if I could sit in on his class an observe how he teaches Mormon lit to Mormon students--and he graciously assented. It was an interesting contrast to my own experiences teaching Mormon lit at the University of Cincinnati. Someday, I'd like to have a chance to teach a class with students like Dr. Bennion's.

Tomorrow is my last day in the archives. I have a lot of copying still to do. I'm also going to pay a visit to a few significant Anderson sites around town.

Did Nephi Anderson Predict the Invasion of Poland?

Shortly after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, an envelope with the words "Important Please Rush" arrived at the Anderson home on 400 South in Salt Lake City. Inside was the following letter from one G. N. Fleming of Evanston, Illinois:

This unsigned letter, which has a similar ring to it, seems to have arrived in the same envelope:

I don't know if G. N. ever got his damaged copy of Added Upon, but his earnest question about whether or not Anderson had had a premonition about the Invasion of Poland, as well as his enthusiasm for the novel apparent affirmation of his apocalypticism and "theories of the spirit," speaks to the emotional and spiritual investments many readers had in the book. We can laugh at it now, even dismiss it as trite and doctrinally suspect, but we should remember that Added Upon once helped to forge Mormon identity--at least for a generation or two--by making the purpose of life and the plan of salvation more personal and accessible for the reading masses. 

It also encouraged the real and the conceptual to meet. For G. N., the Invasion of Poland was not just a current event, but also a sign of the time, a piece of "the last great struggle" before the Second Coming of Christ. How could Anderson write a book like Added Upon--and include the King of Poland--without having had premonitions about the events leading up to the End of Time? Such things, no doubt, came easily to one so well-versed in the happenings of spirits.

The poignant (and slightly eerie) part of this story, of course, is that Nephi Anderson had been dead for nearly seventeen years when G. N. Fleming's letter arrived. How he would have responded is a matter for speculation, but I believe that he would have responded graciously and sent the poor man a brand new book and a kind letter. I also think he would have denied having had any premonitions about Poland, although I'm sure he would have been right on board with all the Apocalyptic stuff. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

President Heber J. Grant: Nephi Anderson's #1 Fan

Here's a letter from President Heber J. Grant to Nephi Anderson shortly before Anderson's unexpected death. As President Grant alludes to in his final paragraph, the two men had worked closely together in Liverpool a little over a decade earlier when Anderson took over the editorship of the Millennial Star. They frequently corresponded, and Grant was one of the first to send his condolences to Anderson's wife, Maud, when Anderson passed away suddenly in early January 1923.

As is evident from the letter, the President of the Church was one of Anderson's many fans. The book he first refers to, A Heap o' Livin', is a 1916 collection of popular poetry by Edgar A. GuestAdventures in Contentment is a popular short story collection from 1907 by David Grayson, the pen name of Ray Stannard BakerHeart Throbs, I initially assumed, was Heart Throbs of the West, but it seems as if that series was published later. 

The story that President Grant raves about is "Distance Lends Enchantment," a kind of Mormon You've Got Mail from the October 1922 issue of the Improvement Era. The story is printed in full below:

Faith in Darkness: A Review of Zion Theatre Company's 2012 Production of Mahonri Stewart's "Swallow the Sun"

I discovered C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia at a time when my classmates were reading books by authors like Judy Blume, Betsy Byars, and Katherine Paterson. This was in the late 1980s. Juvenile fiction—a term I never liked—had taken on a gritty, working-class aesthetic. In these books, children groped for meaning in a world run by deeply-flawed adults who either abandoned or disappointed them. They were often confused about themselves, their emotions, and their changing bodies. If innocence existed, it was a kind of crippled innocence that no one expected to last very long.

Like most kids, I read these books—Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing, The Pinballs, The Great Gilly Hopkins, Bridge to Terabithia—sometimes to follow the crowd, sometimes to catch a glimpse of an actual “bad word” in print. But none of them ever moved me the way The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader did. Sure, I got that Gilly Hopkins had it rough, and I felt the loss of Leslie Burke as acutely as Jess Aarons did, but only Edmund Pevensie seemed to hit close to home. Here finally was a kid like me: an angry family outcast who lived in his older brother’s shadow, schemed and lied to get respect, and needed—more than anyone—some show of divine love.

Edmund found that divine love in Narnia, and it was in pursuit of the same—and a little adventure—that led me and my sister to push against the back wall of the coat closet—the closest thing we had to a wardrobe in our house. We didn’t find Narnia then, nor did we find it in a subway station, a painting, or a pair of magic rings. Still, the allure of Narnia remained—especially after I made the Jesus-Aslan connection. Lewis’ wonder-world then became something deeper for me: Christian mystery in disguise.

How this wonder-world came to be is the subject of Mahonri Stewart’s play Swallow the Sun, now playing at Provo’s Castle Theater (1300 E Center Street), which tells the little-known story of C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. It begins with Lewis—who insists on being called “Jack”—as a newly enlisted soldier preparing for the trenches of World War I. Like his roommate, Paddy Moore, Lewis is an intellectual who is more interested in poetry and Norse mythology than war. For him, religion is just another myth, a collective of fabrications that are no more and no less true than the stories of Zeus and Hercules. He is headstrong and opinionated in this belief, a trait that strains his relationships with other characters in the play—particularly his father, Albert. Only Paddy’s mother, Janie, seems to see past his impenetrable fortress of ego. As a character, she is a mother-figure who helps humanize Jack for the audience—yet she’s not merely a supporting role. Like other mothers in Stewart’s work, she enriches the play with her maddening passive-aggressive resistance to society’s conventions for motherhood.

In this  Zion Theatre Company production of Swallow the Sun, Jack is played by the tweedy Ken Foody, who looks the part and carries the play with an energetic egotism that wins the audience over almost from the beginning. (Those who may be put off by Jack’s intellectual snobbery in the first scene will certainly change their minds when he is leaping off a couch while pretending to be Quasimodo.) Foody’s performance is matched by those of Sam Schofield, who plays Jack’s brother Warnie; Chris Bentley, who plays Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkein; and Jana Lee Stubbs, who plays the awkward “Smudge,” a foolish, frumpy woman who feels intense unrequited love for Jack. Susan Phelan, who plays Janie, and Matthew P. Davis, who plays the Falstaffian Hugo Dyson, also turn out memorable performances. The play is directed by veteran actor and director G. Randall King, who recently directed Stewart's controversial A Roof Overhead at Springville's Little Brown Theater.  

As a play, Swallow the Sun is well-written, funny, and thought-provoking. Critics of Stewart often cite wordiness as one of his flaws, but the eruption of language that occurs in this play hardly seems out of place for characters like Jack and his friends, all of whom are artists or thinkers who love the sounds of their own voice. Unfortunately, this draws attention to one of the weaknesses of this particular production: the quality of the actors’ accents. Foody, Bently, and Schofield do well enough, but other actors—particularly those playing Irish characters—clearly struggle to keep their accents consistent. Early in the play, this is somewhat distracting, but as the actors warm to their characters their accents begin to sound more convincing and less distracting. Only Lawrence McLay, who plays “Doc” Askins, Janie’s Spiritualist brother, never really finds his voice—which is unfortunate since his character’s boisterous mental breakdown is central to the play’s second act.

Another drawback of this production is the venue itself. While Provo’s Castle Theater is a beautiful outdoor amphitheater, it feels altogether too big for a play like Swallow the Sun, which deserves a more personal space to better accentuate the intimate nature of the its action and themes. Like the accents, though, this becomes less of a problem as the play progresses and the stars come out. By the time the second act begins, the sun is long gone and the night has erased all but the spotlit actors. Even the mosquitos stop biting.  

Despite the accents and the less-than-ideal venue, which—let’s face it—are an inevitable part of community theater, Swallow the Sun is a captivating journey from doubt to belief. When the play ends, Jack has not traded his smug atheism for an even smugger Christianity; rather, he has abandoned the safety of believing in nothing for the perilous mystery of faith. For Jack, and those who see themselves in his character, this is no easy matter. “I jumped off the cliff,” he tells J.R.R. Tolkien, “but I’m still falling.”

Oddly, during the night I attended the play, a spotlight malfunction left Foody delivering Jack’s final lines in the dark. As we left the venue, though, my brother-in-law mentioned that the malfunction worked well for the scene. He liked the idea of Jack expressing his hope and faith in Christ while shrouded in darkness. It made the faith seem more real, more like the kind of faith those who follow Christ need to have in order to be truly His.

My brother-in-law talked about this all the way home. The next day, he called up my wife—his older sister—and talked about it some more. He was really moved by it, she said.   

Zion Theatre Company's production of Mahonri Stewart's Swallow the Sun has two remaining performances on September 7 & 8 at 7:30 pm.