Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ten Observations about Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray’s One More River to Cross: A Review

1)  It was a good idea to revise and expand the Standing on the Promises trilogy. I like that the new One More River to Cross, the first volume in the series, is edgier, less apologetic, and significantly less deferential to the assumed reader’s expectations and pruderies. I also like that Margaret Young and Darius Gray, the co-authors, no longer feel it necessary in their chapter notes to justify their character’s belief that Joseph of Egypt’s children had skin “[b]rown as leather” (Revised 69, cf. Original 79) or make excuses for their characterizations of racist Mormons (see their note on Christopher Merkley in Original 89).

2)  I like that Young and Gray added chapters on Q. Walker Lewis, but I’m disappointed by the lack of substance in these chapters. These new chapters read more like history texts than chapters in a novel. Lewis doesn’t come to life in One More River the way Elijah Abel or Jane Manning do—and therefore seems somewhat out of place.

3)  The novel is rather episodic, so it’s ultimately the epic pageantry of the early Mormon ur-story that holds everything together. Personally, I would have skipped the epic pageantry for a more fluid narrative—more Orson Scott Card’s Saints and less The Work and the Glory—but I get the appeal of epic. I also get that this book is the way it is because it is a kind of response to The Work and the Glory and its predominantly white-washed account of Mormon history.

4)  As I hint at in my first observation, the new chapter notes are a significant improvement over those in the original edition. I’m still not a fan of their placement and intrusiveness, but I get that they are a generic convention and serve a function.

5)  Graphically, the new edition is a giant step backwards. The original edition was beautifully designed! Beautifully! This new edition: not so much. Which surprises me. In the past, Zarahemla Books has published novels with great covers—Millstone City, Dispensation, The Tree House, Rift, and Long After Dark—but not this time. How do we account for this graphic design snafu? 

6)  I’m both intrigued and confused by the way the novel includes historical figures like Frederick Douglass and Levi Coffin. On the one hand, I like how these characters help to situate someone like Elijah Abel in his times—not just as a Mormon, but as a free black man in America in the 1830s and 40s. On the other hand, I feel like these coincidental encounters with famous historical figures try the reader’s willful suspension of disbelief by creating situations that seem designed for little else but a quick history lesson. 

7)  Speaking of historical characters: Joseph Smith is a bit of a disappointment in this novel. I don’t see a great difference between Young and Gray’s Joseph and Gerald Lund’s Joseph. He sticks to the script.

8)  Elijah Abel is the novel’s most interesting character, and he really deserves a novel all to himself. As a life-long Cincinnatian, I am fascinated by the chapters that recount his experiences as an Elder in the city. Unfortunately, these chapters are not given as much space to breathe as earlier chapters that recount Abel’s life in as a young man wandering America. By the end of the novel, I miss the intimacy of these earlier chapters. I wouldn’t say the later chapters are rushed, but I would say that they feel crowded.

9)  Jane Manning is the novel’s most developed character, and you can tell that Young and Gray have a great affection for her. Reading her story is like reading the excellent memoirs and novels of nineteenth-century African-American women. Like Abel, however, her early chapters are more interesting than her later chapters—and I wish her time as a member of the Joseph and Emma Smith household received more attention. Really, what could be more interesting that an in-depth imagining of Jane’s take on the origins of plural marriage and the secrets and intrigue it fostered in the Mansion House? That also deserves a novel all to itself.

10)  We should keep in mind that Standing on the Promises is an ambitious work that covers 10x as many years as The Work and the Glory—but in six fewer volumes. Readers will find that it is stretched to its narrative limits and often trades quantity of information for quality of storytelling. Does it still work? Yes and no. One More River to Cross is not really a good novel the way Young’s Salvador is a good novel, but it is an important one—far more important than Salvador—because of the story it seeks to make accessible to a broad Mormon readership. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of Young and Gray, which also include films, the forgotten history of the black Mormon pioneers and early black priesthood holders is finding a place at the table of Mormon memory. Since this new edition of One More River to Cross strives to find that place more boldly and forthrightly than its predecessor, I think it deserves your time and attention.

My interview with Margaret Blair Young about this novel can be read here.

I received a review copy of One More River to Cross from the publisher.             

1 comment:

  1. I love Margaret's and Darius' work, and I appreciate this review, Scott.

    Truly, the stories of the early black saints needs to be told - both honestly and lovingly.