Review of Bronson, “The Agitated Heart”

Click here to read the review on Dawning of a Brighter Day.

 

A surprising number of newly published works of LDS fiction are by middle-aged to oldish authors who’ve been lurking, apparently growing in wisdom and wherewithal, for decades–Karen Rosenbaum. Me. And now Scott Bronson.

Scott’s been doing theater in many places for many years. You can Google him and find his filmography as well as his bio, so much so that when Margaret Blair Young was charged with putting together a panel of Mormon artists last month to celebrate Dialogue’s Diamond Jubilee, she recruited Scott and Tom Rogers and Sterling Van Wagenen, all big theater names, and then me, not such a big name, but local and newly published and therefore perhaps a good token female novelist to set off all those dramaturgs. Tom stepped up on his own and gathered in Eric Samuelson (beloved retired dramatist from BYU) and Brian Kershisnik (beloved artist), thinking, I guess, and probably rightly, that the panel would be better rounded out if they were included. He gave us all copies of his recently published collection of essays, and Scott had come prepared with his new book too. He’s not just an actor/professor/director/ playwright/award winner, not just the artistic director of Provo’s Covey Center for the Arts. (Listen to me: “Not just”!) He’s been working on this book as long as I’d been working on mine, a story he tells with humor and grace at the end of the novella. So I begged a copy, not having had the pleasure of hearing of it before that day. Here is how I was rewarded.

The beautiful cover is Kershisnik’s haunting “Curtain,” wherein a man and his wife and their child (the mother’s hand on the child’s head) draw back a leafy veil behind which can be seen a real forest. They urge forward, eager to see the reality behind the curtain. It’s the perfect metaphor for the novella’s themes: family members striving to be united, seeking to pierce the veil of illusion, struggling to find peace in the face of the unknown.

The epigraph is Robert Frost’s “Revelation,” from which the title comes: “But oh, the agitated heart/Till someone really find us out.//…// So all who hide too well away/ Must speak and tell us where they are”–again, the perfect foreword to the unspoken self-constraints that hamper each character, but that also motivate them, cause them deep pain, and provide unasked-for incentives for the actions that make the plot spin.

The prologue: “Christopher Jacob Arnold sought peace for many days.” The search for peace is a principal theme here. The Arnolds are a family in crisis, and in this way the novella reminds me of Jenn Ashworth’s *The Friday Gospels* and Carys Bray’s *A Song for Issy Bradley,* two British novels from 2013 and 2014 in which LDS families are in similar crises. Unlike the characters in the British works, though, Bronson’s family are faithful, dyed-in-the-wool Utah members, not at all wrestling with first-generation angst and misunderstanding (as are the Leekys and the Bradleys). Father Marcus is a popular elders quorum instructor; his wife, Susan, is the Primary president. Stutterer Kari is almost eight, nervous about baptism, and eleven-year-old Christopher is the (anti-)hero who opens the novella as he responds to an unusual Sunday School class, where the teacher draws on the board a graphic representation of Christ’s suffering in the Garden, a representation that moves all the Valiant 11s to tears.

It’s a gripping opening scene. What would move a Sunday School teacher to chalk great gobs and flows of blood from the pores of a praying Christ? But he does; and the whole family rises to it as they hear about it, each from their own secret guilt and anguish. The rest of the novella–which takes place over the next five days–recounts through each of them, individually and finally together, the implications of the Atonement in their family’s life.

Christopher is being seriously bullied at school. Marcus and Susan are experiencing some (not trivial) difficulties in their marriage due to idiosyncratic hangups about perfection and about their roles in their partnership. And Kari, like most seven-year-olds, is trying hard to learn who and what is “right,” what she *ought* to do and what she *can* do. Christopher is the only person she feels she can tell that she really doesn’t want to be baptized. But he’s got his own problems.

Alternating the point of view among the four members of the family, Bronson does a beautifully subtle job of showing how we excuse ourselves privately and publicly, make things worse by attempting to rectify our errors, strive to fix one thing only to exacerbate another. Painful and poignant, the plot grows quickly more constrictive. As the bullying intensifies, so do the mistakes Susan and Marcus make in their misdirected concern for Christopher and their inadequacy in comprehending Kari’s fears. Confrontations; blessings gone wrong; dreams; images exquisite but horribly private, not externalized, of confession, disclosure, repentance and redemption–these snowball as the week draws to its awful close. The meaning of the Atonement unfolds (without ever being named outright) as children and parents do their best to salvage goodness, rightness, from the fallout of undeservedly terrible circumstances.

Fiction has multiple functions in the lives and minds of both readers and writers. The story of the genesis of “this troubling little tale” (206) implies that composing it–a twenty-year process–was a matter for Bronson not only of interrogating the minutiae of marriage and parenthood, but also exploring the essence of Christ’s mission of sacrifice, forgiveness, and love. For readers, now, this beautifully-produced little volume serves as a tightly-constructed, eloquent set of signs and symbols regarding our fallibility and the need for Christ. It’s a small classic. All who are mature enough to love and fear for their families should read it. I hope there will be more where this came from. We can never get too much wisdom.

RMMLA Annual Convention

Hello! I will be reading from my new novel at the RMMLA Convention in the Salt Lake Hilton on October 7 at 6:30 pm, the only female on the program. Please see below for details, and click here for the full program.

RMMLA Poets and Prose Authors Read their Works in English

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 7, 6:30PM- 8:00PM in CANYON B

Chair: Scott Henkel, University of Wyoming 

Presenters: Kevin Holdsworth, Snow College. "Selected reading in prose

 Julie J. Nichols, Utah Valley University. "Prose selections

 David Levine, University of South Dakota. "Selected poems

 James E. Young, Weber State University. "Prose readings"

Utah Humanities Book Festival!

October 24, 1:00 PM Room CB510, Utah Valley University

The faculty at UVU have had a very busy year. Scott Abbott (Immortal for Quite Some Time), Julie Nichols (Pigs When They Straddle the Air), and Alex Caldiero (Who is the Dancer, What is the Dance) all have new books out this year, and they’re ready to share them with you.

For more information and the full schedule of events, click here.

For more information and the full schedule of events, click here.

Creative nonfiction is like fiction-how?

To view the full article, please click here!


At Utah Valley University, I’m at the intersection of two unique situations.

(Or maybe they’re not so unique. Both situations can be found at other institutions of higher learning in Utah, though probably not to the degree that we have here in Happy Valley. But almost certainly they’re not found in other states. Anyway, the intersection itself is pretty remarkable, imho.)

First: a relatively high percentage of our students are LDS. Some are TBMs. Others are happily separated from churchgoing but inextricably yoked to the culture, a condition they either writhe against or roll with. And a fair number can (and do) say, “I was raised that way but I don’t do it any more.” They’re proud of it. Mormon, but not. We have a lot of those.

Second, we have a burgeoning creative writing program. There are more students in this emphasis in the English Department than in literary studies, Writing Studies, or education.

Mormon young people of all stripes, and a blossoming creative writing program—what more exciting intersection could there be?

Within that program, I teach (along with Karin Anderson and sometimes Lee Ann Mortensen) both fiction and the writing of creative nonfiction—the personal essay that Eugene England introduced me to and mentored me in thirty years ago at BYU. At the time I met him, in the early 1980s, he was Famous and Popular, and was just starting a brand new Intro to Creative Writing class (English 218) focusing on this new genre, neither strictly expository essay nor freely fictive creation. I was a graduate student with small children, dying to write the stories of my life. Really: I felt they were killing me off, those real-life stories I was living, and I needed to speak (write) them so I didn’t lose what was left.

On the first day of that new class, a great overflowing crowd of BYU students, mostly undergrad, spilled from his classroom on the bottom floor of the JKHB out into the hall. It was standing room only, five deep on all sides. I’m short and small but I pushed my way in, determined not to lose this opportunity to write in a new way, or to learn to write it from The Master. The first issues of Dialogue had come to our northern California home years before, when my dad, a marvelous Thinker-and-Doer, had subscribed wholeheartedly to what was going on at Stanford in the Mormon literary world, and so I’d become familiar with England’s name both as an editor and as a writer in that publication. I liked what I’d read. I can’t remember how I learned about his class that semester at BYU, but when he saw the numbers of students clamoring to take it and said he couldn’t possibly add them all and would therefore require us to “audition” by writing something for him in class that first hour, I leaned against the wall and handwrote a passionate letter (no laptops in those days). I would help him grade the papers if he would let me stay in the class, I told him. I had three babies and was already a struggling grad assistant. I was dependable. I knew I could assist him. Here’s my contact info, I told him, begging him to consider my proposal.

That night he called. He’d secured money and an official TA position for me. I taught with him that semester, to my everlasting joy and benefit, and for several semesters after that.

Now I teach his specialty at UVU, have done so for almost fifteen years (after years at BYU that ended when my fiction was deemed “unsuitable for BYU students”). But though Gene was Writer-in-Residence here in the years before his untimely death in 2001, I’ve rarely taught his work. My excuse is that there’s so much amazing cnf to teach!—just check out BYU prof Patrick Madden’s wonderful website, and you’ll see! They’ll find Gene’s stuff on their own…surely…

But now — this semester — members of my intermediate creative nonfiction class have spoken up transparently about their LDS experiences (especially missions). I’ve brought them Craig Harline’s nationally-published  Way Below the Angels, that delightful “pretty clearly troubled but not even close to tragic” memoir of the life of a “real live Mormon missionary.” I feel justified in saying Look, students, this kind of thing is getting published out there! You can transform your (and your community’s) life by writing your truth! Jackpot! Cha-ching!

And so it now also seems imperative to introduce them to essays like“Blessing the Chevrolet” (and Clifton Jolley’s “Selling the Chevrolet” in response), “Healing and Making Peace” (especially in these fraught election months), and my personal favorite, “Easter Weekend” , which I post on Facebook every Easter, hoping some of my “friends” will read it and be as moved as I always am by the grace and beauty of the prose, and the humility of the story. More real life Mormon stuff. More of what belongs by literary and spiritual birthright to my LDS(-and-not) students.Cha-ching! 

Gene left a remarkable heritage, to the world of Mormon letters and to multitudes of individual students, friends, and colleagues. Valerie Halladay says in a 1999 Dialogue essay that she learned from him the amazing power of the personal essay to “transform ugliness and chaos into grace and beauty” (86). Later she studied autobiographical theory, she says in the same article, and affirmed for herself that [personal] creative nonfiction is both “discovery [and] creation” (87). Like fiction, creative nonfiction co-creates this plastic, mutable reality we inhabit. Both in the very act of creating, and in tropes, conflicts, motifs, and characters, writers of both fiction and creative nonfiction call on traditions and techniques to make new (sometimes frightening but always, always needed) worlds.

Another time I’ll put forth my theory about the evolution of genres as an expression of the evolution of human consciousness (to use Owen Barfield parlance)—which evolution, my wise friend Duane Hiatt says, has its culmination in Moses 1:39. But what I want to say this time is this: we’re celebrating Dialogue’s fiftieth anniversary this month. One of that magazine’s greatest legacies is the personal essay, the creative nonfiction piece as a legitimate expression of Mormon thought in all its complexity. (See, just as one example, Mary Bradford’s 1978 essay on the Mormon personal essay.)

There are contests. The Sunstone Eugene England Personal Essay contest deadline is in May every year, and Dialogue’s personal essay contest is currently soliciting entries. There will be celebrations on Sept 30, in a Symposium at UVU and in a Gala at the Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake. In Dialogue and its descendants, our heritage, our culture, our very race and people are preserved and enlarged, through narrative, metaphor, exploration and argument both “true” and fictional. It’s a privilege to invite UVU students and other writers to join us in these celebrations. To enter the contests. To always, always keep writing, to create and transform this world. Cha-ching!

Review: Jensen and McKay-Lamb, “A Book of Mormons: Latter-day Saint on a Modern-Day Zion”

Read my review of McKay-Lamb's new book below. To view on Dawning of a Brighter Day, click here.

Title: A Book of Mormons: Latter-day Saint on a Modern-Day Zion (Part of the “I Speak For Myself” Series)
Editors: Emily W. Jensen and Tracy McKay-Lamb
Publisher: White Cloud Press (Ashland, Oregon)
Genre: Personal essay collection
Year of Publication: 2015
Number of Pages: 196
Binding: Paper
ISBN13: 978-1-935952-90-9
Price: $17.95

Reviewed by Julie J. Nichols for the Association for Mormon Letters

*A Book of Mormons* is the seventh volume in the “I Speak for Myself” series, which delivers “interfaith, intercultural [collections of narratives] that are narrow in scope but rich in diversity” (www.ispeakformyself.com). Other titles in the series include several on being Muslim, one on fatherhood, and two whose focus is women. There seems to be a deep righteousness, if I may be allowed to use that word, in the mission of this series. Deepak Chopra says of the volume by American Muslim women, for example, that it is “an honest effort to allow American-born Muslim women to change the narrative of American Islam–each in her own words.” The series cofounders seek to deliver volumes that are “mindset-altering, inspiring, relatable, and teachable.” What good fortune that there is one now on Mormons!

The theme for this volume isn’t gender-specific. Instead, it’s the notion of “Zion.” Jensen’s and McKay-Lamb’s appealing introduction doesn’t explain how they decided on this theme. Nor does it attempt to group the thirty-one essays by as many kinds of Mormon into any set of categories. Because the authors are of all ages and many different ethnicities, and representative of multiple gender identities, Jensen and McKay-Lamb define the thread that ties these brief but heartfelt personal essays as an exploration of what “our unique and sometimes downplayed theological doctrine of Zion might mean today” (2).

Kate Kelly, excommunicated founder of Ordain Women, is here. Patrick Q. Mason, editor of the recently-reviewed *Directions for Mormon Studies in The Twenty-first Century* and several other books, is here. So are Scott Hales, creator of the webcomic *The Garden of Enid: Adventures of a Weird Mormon Girl*; Neylan McBain, whose *Women at Church* has been so impactful in the lives of many wards; Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand; William Morris, Michael Austin, and Stephen Carter, well-known names among readers of Mormon letters; Ignacio Garcia, Lemuel Hardison Redd, Jr. Professor of Western and Latino history at BYU; and a host of other articulate, thoughtful people whose contributions to the conversation on Zion combine to enlighten and please. I will single out two of my favorite essays, but the other twenty-nine are equally engaging and deserve your perusal.

First, Garcia’s: “A Barrio Perspective on Building Zion in the Twenty-first Century.” My brother serves in a mission presidency in Arizona, where (as in much of the southwest and west of the United States) Spanish speakers are almost as numerous as those who speak English. My brother has had a profound love for Spanish speakers since we were in high school (hats off to a truly exceptional Spanish teacher, who taught me as well), and he writes to me often about the Latinos in his mission whose lives he empathizes with deeply. Garcia’s essay, clear-eyed about mistakes the Church has made and frank about challenges Latino Latter-day Saints must deal with, opened my eyes to ways of thinking about community that have not always played out in my own experience:

“Latino Saints are not any more enlightened than their white counterparts, but their political and social challenges [which he has spent three pages detailing] have always required collective action….Latino leaders are more likely to preach member solidarity as more foundational to building Zion than their white counterparts, who see it being built one brick (individual family) at a time” (74). “Latino Latter-day Saints have had to engage in a universal church in a way most white [American] Mormons have not,” he says; “…The barrio is Zion” (75).

As so often happens when I read the mindful analyses of those who experience, study, and know the problems of our culture, I felt stirrings toward sympathetic action, the desire to share what I had learned, with my brother, with others involved with the Latino community, and with my well-educated and diverse Sunday School class. Garcia’s essay widened my understanding of Zion.

Jacob Baker’s “Here We Will Sit Down and Weep, When We Remember Zion” likewise swelled my understanding. This is a sad essay, to be honest, as the title implies; more theoretical than practical, it reminds readers that Zion has always meant as much burden as ideal. After all, any ideal is partially loss, something out of reach, never quite achieved. But the essay ends in a kind of hope: “The work of mourning, which is ultimately the work of Zion that is most consistently present and available to us [see Mosiah 18: 8-10], is a knife that efficiently cuts away the outer protective shells we have carefully built to keep others away, obscuring our view of one another” (164).

The testimony that “Zion” consists of acknowledging each other’s vulnerability and reaching out to share or bless it, as much as it is an ideal of equals in community, pervades this volume. Nicely bound, pleasant to hold in the hand and easy on the eyes, this *Book of Mormons* should be on the shelf of every thoughtful Latter-day Saint. It will make a lovely gift for nonmember friends, too–they’ll see that they, too, have a place in Zion.

Manifesting, Maybe

Here is a link to my most recent post on Dawning of a Brighter Day. Or you can read below!

Here’s the thing about fiction: whether you are reading it or writing it, it blasts you out of this world into another one, and you can’t remain convinced, once you’ve encountered that, that any world is the one true thing. I wonder, incidentally, what “the thing about music” is, or “the thing about dance.” They have to do respectively with time and movement, I know that, but because I don’t compose either of those art forms, I’m not sure they do what fiction (reading or writing) does to me, which is this: It makes me pretty sure there’s no “one true” anything.

Now, I’m also convinced that dream and memory are related. Both sets of images occur in the same deep crevices of my mind and brain, where they draw on input from my senses as well as from my emotional states to manifest experiences unlike anything I’ve ever done in waking life but that feel like truth. When I was studying energy and consciousness for personal growth, I was told, “you co-create your own reality.” It meant, nothing that happens to you comes solely from outside. As within, so without. You are certainly not a merely internal flux. Not while you’re on this planet, not while you’re in this sphere of existence. The outside and the inside together constitute “the real.”

Owen Barfield, a lesser-known but hardly lesser-brilliant Inkling whose influence on C.S. Lewis is only beginning to be acknowledged (see, for example, Thorson), writes in his illuminating philosophical novel Unancestral Voice that “the interior is anterior” (p. 11 and throughout). Now, Barfield’s signature concept is the evolution of consciousness. A student of Rudolf Steiner, Barfield wrote extensively and beautifully that the unfolding of human history, including our language, demonstrates an arc away from what he called “participation,” by which he meant a unified state of reciprocal being and doing taking place always and at once between humans and nature, each other, matter, and the immaterial. All that is in earth once “participated” together, but the history of language itself shows how starkly it has separated, and how profoundly we are reaching, reaching, toward what Barfield terms “final participation,” that is, consciously-chosen reciprocal doing and being — in short, redemption.

I have translated Barfield’s rich philosophy into Mormon notions of the Fall, and have traced similarities between his joyful discussions of the meaning of Christ’s Incarnation and Mormon concepts of “godbodiedness” and atonement. I bring all this up only to suggest that when Barfield says “the interior is anterior,” he means (as I do) that dreams and memory are not separate from, but anterior — previous, in both space and time — to our commonly experienced, scientifically quantified, “separated” reality. In “real” reality, what is in our minds and what is outside them have a delicate reciprocal relationship. Wisdom acknowledges, cultivates, seeks to nurture this relationship, to reap good fruit from and with it. “Participation” is as much the fiction writer’s aim as “co-creation.” Memory, dream, and reality co-create each other. Literature — fiction — has an indispensable place in this process.

In case it’s not obvious where I’m going with this, let me try to say it plainly: fiction is a manifestation, and a furthering, of mind. It both reflects and hastens the evolution of consciousness. Everyone knows John Gardner’s equation: a novel is a vivid and continuous dream. Whatever interrupts that dream is best edited out of the novel’s drafts. (The power of editing to create both a better draft and a better writer is a truth universally acknowledged, I know. Maybe I’ll write more about that here in the future.) Jonathan Langford said at A Motley Vision in a comment to Sarah Dunster that “the way [to fiction that is unapologetically LDS, yet available to a general audience] will be shown less by manifesto and more by individual Mormon artists doing what comes naturally to them as they honor both their art and their Mormonism” (August 1, 2016). Now, occasionally in my fiction workshops (and nonfiction too) I require students to compose their personal writing manifestos, because I think becoming conscious of their motives and first principles can directly positively affect their work. But I like Langford’s point. Manifesto is not mandate, or shouldn’t be. And fiction by or about Mormons that expands human consciousness will not come about by mandate but by our manifesting, through language, the possibilities in our dreams and memories, the realities of our minds.

I need others’ minds in my life: Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, which embeds me in a family of artists I want to know, siblings and parents who love each other and judge the world wryly against their own ironic visions as I’d like to think I could do, given the company. Alan Garner’s Red Shift, in which I have to piece together retroactively, from fragmented scenes of mystery, loss, and desire, the connections between three wildly various worlds, just as I must piece together fragments of my own. Harry Potter — who hasn’t marveled at Rowling’s world, as complete in its astonishing way as Middle Earth? Steven Peck’s wild alternative Mormon futures. Yours.

Well, and while we’re talking like this, let’s admit it’s not just fiction that performs this magic. Leaving poetry aside for the moment, let’s consider such nonfiction as Walter Wink’s interpretations of Jesus’s teachings, which enlarge my sense of what Jesus was all about as much as, and in some cases more than, Deseret Book homilies. My teacher Lansing Barrett Gresham’s reality, where energy is palpable through muscle and movement, so that mental states and physical wellness can be traced and changed in and through each other, makes as much sense to me as any pharmaceutical explanation of human health. Why not? Their saying so is not a mandate. You don’t have to believe it. To say a book is “true” is an odd comment, imho. You and I know: “truth” isn’t “fact.” The song says it’s “the sum of existence,” and you who read and write fiction know, by your dreams and memories, that that sum has hardly been reached. What we read, and also, at its best, what we write, swells the world, swells the bounds of evolving human consciousness, swells the capacities of the brain and mind. “Reality” is co-created. Enlarged. Made more true.

Because Mormon culture makes an idol of “the truth,” “the one true thing,” “the most true book,” I think those of us who write fiction do need to manifest our conviction of its limitless value in the ever-expanding evolution of human consciousness, even if we don’t make manifestos about it. I confess I’ve never had much trouble with the thought that the scriptures are human-made. The idea doesn’t threaten me in the least. They were (are) written, by someone(s) who knew language devices: ellipsis and image, syntax and symbol, juxtaposition and plot. Language is our gift, one of the (if not the) most astonishing gifts to humans, a medium in which to embody realities behind and beneath the “real.” There’s enormous value, imho, in thinking of scripture in the same way I think of all literature, whether as reader or writer: consciously composed, linguistically-aware stories that blast apart the potential complacency of this separated, scientific world. If I let scripture or fiction work on me with an open heart, my reality can be changed. I want this — I need it — in my ever-evolving life.

So maybe this is a bit of a manifesto for today: It is needed that we makers of Mormon fiction manifest the widest possible range of potentiality in this, our astonishing anterior-interior world. Our participation is needed in the activity of crafting novels, plays, stories, performances on the stage or in the mind. It is needed that we co-create: New wisdoms. New experiences. Knowledge. Truth.

Let’s all keep writing.

Three Writers Find Literary Inspiration

Below is a recent article from the Salt Lake Tribune discussing the literary inspiration for three new books influenced by Utah's history. My new book, "Pigs When they Straddle the Air" is featured, along with Alison McLennan's "Ophelia's War" and Ella Joy Olsen's "Root, Petal, Thorn". You can find the full article here or visit the link at the bottom of the post to be taken to the full website. Enjoy!

As a literary landscape, Utah often earns attention for our natural environment, rather than our distinctive characters. But three new novels, all set in Utah, draw upon our state's peculiar history while unfolding fresh and interesting stories.

These three books, written by women, all foreground female characters. While they range in tone and language, all are provocative in the way they explode and expand the category of historical fiction. Each book, too, deals in interesting ways with polygamy.

The biographies of all three writers upturn publishing expectations.

At age 63, Julie J. Nichols is publishing her first novel, "Pigs When They Straddle the Air," with Zarahemla Books, a regional Mormon publisher. Nichols, a mother and grandmother, lives in Provo, where she is a professor of English at Utah Valley University. She's a much-published scholarly writer and book reviewer, who previously co-wrote two books with energy healer Lansing Barrett Gresham.

"Pigs" unfolds in seven linked stories about the women in one complicated family, and her characters happen to be Mormon in the way they happen to be human. They are mothers and daughters, accidental lesbians and unconventional heterosexuals, believers and not.

Instead of explicating doctrine, Nichols' characters struggle to live and find their place in the world, relying on "a lot of different helps and resources," the writer says. "My characters reach out for and grab onto what will save them." What sets apart the stories are their beautiful, original literary prose and the characters' unconventional hopefulness.

Alison McLennan's "Ophelia's War" bears the most resemblance to traditional historical fiction, its themes evident in the subtitle: "The Secret Story of a Mormon Turned Madam." At 45, McLennan is a mother and former social worker.

"Ophelia" is the story of one young Mormon convert girl who is orphaned, along with her half-Indian brother, Zeke, in rural Utah in 1869. She's courted by a polygamist, and when her golddigger of an uncle comes to town, she and her brother escape. Ophelia heads north, protecting her mother's prized ruby necklace, and eventually lands in Ogden. In the frontier town, she relies on her wits to fend for herself before she meets a successful madam who teaches her the business.

Ella Joy Olsen, 45, is an avid reader who turned to writing fiction after her children were in school. Her debut novel, "Root, Petal, Thorn," is about a young widow who becomes obsessed with the previous residents of her 100-year-old Sugar House bungalow; it will be published Aug. 30, the first of two contracted novels published by Kensington Books.

'Pigs When They Straddle the Air'

Writer's background • Julie Nichols was raised in San Francisco and came to Utah on scholarship to attend Brigham Young University, where Eugene England mentored her as a creative-writing teacher. She worked as an adjunct writing instructor at BYU until the publication of several of her unconventional stories led to her contract not being renewed. In 2002, she was hired on the faculty at UVU.

Editor says • "I love how she's able to deal with complexity without having to rush to judgment," says Christopher J. Bigelow, the publisher who launched the Utah-based Zarahemla Books 10 years ago. "She's able to be open to look at problems from kind of a generous standpoint. I think most readers can find characters in the novel they can relate with, they are learning from, and that make them uncomfortable — and I just like that breadth."

The novel • "Pigs" grew out of the experiments with form that Nichols began working on while earning a doctorate at the University of Utah in the 1990s. At the time, she was a young mother, concerned about the plight of Mormon women. Even after Nichols had finished her degree and turned to writing a novel, a core of characters kept reappearing, centered on Riva Maynard and her daughter, Katie.

Nichols reworked and reshaped her original stories, and now they are linked to focus on several generations of Salt Lake City women. "They all had this line of concern that had to do with mothers and children, and what to do to make our lives whole when it is so hard. And yet we do it," Nichols says.

"On B Street in Salt Lake City, November in the Carter years, everything spelled safety: well-dusted furniture, vacuumed rugs, lint-free drapes, shining stove-top. Remote threats, distant uncertainties all bided their time," thinks Riva as a vaguely dissatisfied young mother.

In some ways, the stories explicate the recent past, as if 1970s feminism were another era, while the stories also have very contemporary concerns, about illness and abortions and ill-fated marriages and overlooked children and the veracity of healing powers. The descriptions of neighborhoods and schools offer a ring of familiarity for local readers, as do the glimpses of practicing polygamists and the language describing Mormon religious rituals.

Most of all, though, Nichols' characters are human in their interesting complexity, and in the hands of such an assured writer, where they end up is never quite expected.

Nichols is happy her characters have found a home in the form of a novel, but she's moved on to work on a more traditionally structured novel, with the working title of "The Book of Contested Visions."

'Ophelia's War'

Writer's background • Alison McLennan was raised in Boston, and her neighborhood provided the material for her first novel, 2012's "Falling for Johnny," a crime thriller that explored the human side of an organized-crime boss. A Kirkus reviewer termed it: "A dark, violent story with a heart."

She moved to Utah for the skiing, eventually earning a degree in social work at the University of Utah. After she and her husband settled in Ogden, she turned to writing fiction when her son entered school, then went onto earn an MFA from Pine Manor College. "Sometimes I think all of my writing is just my own therapy," she says of her tendency to explore her concerns through her fictional characters.

Editor says • Kara Kugelmeyer, strategy manager of Five Star Books, called McLennan's book provocative in the way it unfolds a story from the point of view of a strong female protagonist who happens to be a prostitute. "It's a unique story, with a variety of different plotlines," Kugelmeyer says, and its telling helps to add to the diversity found in Western stories.

The novel • After growing up surrounded by the history of the Revolutionary War, at first McLennan was somewhat dismissive of the history in her adopted state, told mostly through a glorified, faith-promoting lens. "It didn't tell you much about the hardships," she says.

Then, while poking around Union Station one day, she stumbled across the story of an Ogden madam who had purchased a gilded carriage from Brigham Young, who was experiencing financial difficulties after his 14th wife divorced him.

That historical nugget inspired her to create a history-based character who has a different take on sexuality, beginning with her shame after she is raped as a girl. "In my research, I read about a lot of women who spent most of their lives posing as men," McLennan says. "I think the women who came out West were probably really tough."

In a way, McLennan says she's not surprised to be writing historical fiction, as she's always been drawn to stories of the past. "I've always felt like when I'm in a place that's old, I definitely have a sensation," she says. "It's like being drawn into a story. It's strange."

Her character's story is complicated and intriguing, but ultimately proved too big to be contained in the covers of one book. McLennan is writing a sequel where readers will learn more about Ophelia's mother and the origin of the ruby necklace that serves as a talisman for a young woman on her own.

'Root, Petal, Thorn'

Writer's background • Ella Joy Olsen was raised in the Murray-Holladay area, and both sides of her family were deeply rooted in Utah. Despite her love of literature, she went the practical route and earned a finance degree from the University of Utah. She and her husband lived in Seattle and Savannah, Ga., before returning to Salt Lake City to raise their three children.

Agent says • "I see this book as book-club fiction, which means it's the kind of book that's entertaining, but also makes you think and want to talk about it," says Rachel Ekstrom, of New York's Irene Goodman Agency. "I think it's the right note between accessible and beautifully written."

The novel • As an avid reader, Olsen turned to writing fiction after her kids went to school. She took seriously the clichéd advice to write what you know when she began plotting a story that's rooted in a 100-year-old house, modeled after her Sugar House bungalow. "I was familiar with the way the light hit at different times of the year," Olsen says. "I so often have stood at my windows looking out on my street and have tried to imagine what the street looked like 100 years ago."

"Root" can be considered a twisty mix of contemporary storytelling and historical fiction. Its anchor is Ivy, a young widow who in her grief turns to renovating her historic home. Along the way, she discovers bits and pieces about the women who lived there earlier, all of whom nurtured the Blue Moon climbing rose in the garden.

In her inventions, Olsen admits there are moments of reality, such as the name of Ivy's across-the-street neighbor, George, modeled on her late neighbor. And Olsen tends her heirloom rose, which she planted from the start of a bush carried across the plains on the Mormon Trail by her great-grandmother's grandmother.

Readers will appreciate descriptions of the Sugar House neighborhood, as well as other local landmarks. Each of the women is of her era and each unfolds an unexpected story, including one unusual take on a polygamous relationship. "I would have gone to any of the time periods in the book and had a cup of coffee or tea with them," Ekstrom says, in praising the warmth with which Olsen created her characters.

Exploring the residents of one house gave Olsen a way to explore the layers of lived experience that eventually turn into what we know as history.

"I hope that readers will catch that mystery of thinking about people who looked out the same windows and walked the same halls," Olsen says. "And how when they're gone, their stories are gone."

By Ellen Fagg Weist

 

 

Mason, ed., “Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century”

To read my review on Dawning of a Brighter Day, you can view it here.

Review
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Title: Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century
Editor: Patrick Q. Mason
Publisher: The University of Utah Press
Genre: Essay collection
Year of Publication: 2016
Number of Pages: 295
Binding: paper
ISBN13: 978-1-60781-475-7
Price:$29.00

Reviewed by Julie J. Nichols for the Association for Mormon Letters

Mormon Studies, according to Wikipedia, is “the interdisciplinary academic study of the beliefs, practices, history and culture of those known by the term *Mormon.*” It includes apologetics and international Mormon studies, and programs of Mormon Studies are housed in seven public universities in the United States with various Chairs and initiatives, not including BYU, LDS Institutes, or other religious institutions where classes can be taken specifically on LDS themes.

The methodology, theory, and concerns of history, sociology, anthropology, statistics, economics, cultural studies, and literature (at least autobiography and memoir) inform Mormon Studies, and the globalization of the Church provides material for myriad as yet untapped research questions. Mormons who wonder how they stack up against members of other religions on many counts, or why the church does what it does, or how it has changed, and whether that change is predictable and socially constructed; and non-Mormons whose fields touch upon any of these mentioned—all will find much to appeal to them here.

The book grew out of a conference held in March 2013 at Claremont Graduate University called “Beyond the Mormon Moment: Directions for Mormon Studies in the New Century.” The purpose of the conference was to honor Armand Mauss, whose name I heard often as I was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area and who has appeared often at Sunstone Symposia and other events I’ve attended since moving to Utah, to my secret delight: here’s someone from home! The final essay in the book explains much that I had only surmised till I read it. A relatively informal and personal piece by Claudia Bushman, it may be the easiest read in the collection, a “coda” entitled “A Man of His Time and Place: An Appreciation of Armand Mauss and the California Mormons” (267-272). Bushman narrates Mauss’s life in relation to hers:

“Armand and I are not Utahans. We have never been Utahans. We are California Mormons. In our time [the decades surrounding the 1950s and 60s], California Mormons were more independent than Utah Mormons; they were grateful for the distance that separated them from Salt Lake City. They paid less homage to old church families. They were less pious, less judgmental, more aware of living in and negotiating with the secular world…” (268)

Attributing Mauss’s distance from and curiosity about Church leadership to his position outside of Utah though child of Utah Mormons, she traces the trajectory of his academic career as an astute observer of, and analyzer of, changes in the Church’s priorities and practices from the point of view of a scholar of both sociology and religious studies. His work is referred to repeatedly throughout the volume with respect and deference. But it wasn’t till I read this final essay that I understood why.

And my understanding wasn’t just about this collection. Bushman puts into words a truth I’ve known since I left the Bay Area decades ago: I’m a California Mormon too, “cooler in style, bearing less effusive testimonies…do not stand to sing ‘oh Ye Mountains High’ and try to avoid singing it at all…loyal and reliable…the real Mormon pioneers” (268).

Bushman is delightfully tongue-in-cheek as she writes this, but I loved reading it—I and my ilk have been accurately identified at last! This book of essays, gathered to honor Armand Mauss, honors all of us Mormons who don’t see ourselves through a lens of one-and-only-true-and-living. Studying our religion through academic lenses helps us see what we are, in fact; this book “[charts] out a few key areas and modes of inquiry that will shape Mormon studies as it continues to mature” (7).

After Mason’s excellent historical and evaluative introduction to the field, the book is divided into five sections, each with two or three essays. The first is called “Reassessing Twentieth-Century Mormonism,” with an essay on “The Progressivist Roots of Correlation” by Matthew Bowman and a discussion of Mormon ethnicity by the well-known non-Mormon historian Jan Shipps. Both place trends in Mormon history within larger American contexts, work that many Utah Mormons would benefit from studying in order to extract themselves from the mistaken notion that the evolution of Church policies and practices has come straight from the mouth of God, unattached to secular movements and political needs.

Part II, “American Church or World Religion?”, contains what I consider two of the most fascinating of the essays. A meticulously argued overview of the Church’s first efforts in Japan (where my son went on his mission in 1998-2000 and later lived for several years) locates early “failures” there in the context of sociopolitical trends in that country, placing responsibility on leaders’ inability or refusal to see how isolationism and anti-Christian feeling should have helped determine successful proselytizing methods.

But the other two essays in the section are perhaps even more pointed. Walter E.A. van Beek reviews official attitudes toward “cultural diversity” within the Church, and Wilfried Decoo presents an extensive list of questions scholars (and leaders!) could and should be asking about how the church’s American origins affect members’ conversion, commitment and assimilation abroad. Though neither overtly criticizes current practices, both certainly do suggest a number of new ways to look at problems and issues that are often sidestepped or simply swept away with such comments as “The Church does not do culture.” Both van Beek (Netherlands) and Decoo (Belgium) make it clear that it’s impossible to “not do culture.” Culture affects every aspect of religious acceptance. The ignorance or refusal of leaders to address the complex interplay between culture and gospel, between social attitudes and potential for spiritual growth, needs careful remediation. Research—here and abroad—can help.

Part III, “The Burden of Race,” again places Mormon attitudes toward race—and nineteenth-century American attitudes toward Mormons as aliens—in historical context, analyzing the documents of Jane James’s life (Quincy D. Newell) and political cartoons about Mormons (W. Paul Reeve) to trace the complicated progress of the Church’s “racialization.”

Part IV provides “Theoretical Models in the Study of Mormonism.” Sentences like this one characterize the three essays in this section:

“To repeat our earlier observation, content analysis methods are most beneficial for the generalizing goals of social science when they can be applied to sets of organizationally connected records or documents that constitute meaningful units of material produced during specified periods of time.” (215)

This essay by brothers and coauthors Gary Shepherd and Gordon Shepherd on the benefits of “Statistical Content Analysis of Historical Documents” for studies of religions in general via Mormon Studies is perhaps the most jargon-ridden of the contributions to *Directions.* It’s still interesting, though; if you have any investment at all in scholarly methods, logistics and applications, this and its accompanying essays (by Michael McBride and Richard Lyman Bushman) demonstrate how theories of economics, history, sociology, and even literary production can shed light on such issues as authority and the “fantastic” aspects of the Joseph Smith story.

Finally, Part V examines the role of personal voice in the telling of Mormon stories. The essays by Levi Peterson and Jana Reiss apply literary analysis to Wayne Booth’s autobiography and Craig Harline’s more recent memoir to very good effect.

But I found that the essays which upended received answers about culture and history were the most rewarding to me. This is not light summer reading. It’s deeply scholarly, raising questions I wish the General Authorities would take to heart. Perhaps they do; perhaps there are departments at the COB engaged in cultural and historical work I know nothing about. In the meantime, my own job at one of the seven universities where a thriving Mormon Studies program offers conferences every year and encourages students to acknowledge the potential for research and rich new answers, reassures me that what this book sets out is true: Mormon Studies is viable, workable, delicious to the taste and very desirable.

Holbrook and Bowman, eds., “Women and Mormonism”

Click here to read the review on Dawning of a Brighter Day.

Review
======

Title: Women and Mormonism
Editors: Kate Holbrook and Matthew Bowman
Publisher: The University of Utah Press
Genre: Essay collection
Year of Publication: 2016
Number of Pages: 354
Binding: Paper
ISBN13: 978-1-60781-4771
Price: $34.95

Reviewed by Julie J. Nichols for the Association for Mormon Letters

About a month ago I sat under an awning in the garden patio of a local bookstore listening to a book talk by Kate Holbrook and Matthew Bowman about the development and contents of the volume under review here. Its theme is agency: how Mormon women have experienced and expressed their agency, and “the diverse ways [they] have understood the relationship between their faith and their personal agency” (from the back cover). One of the fun moments of the book talk came at the beginning, when Holbrook asked what the audience thought of the book cover. It shows a woman’s hand holding out an all-but-consumed apple core. “It represents Eve throwing away the stigma of eating the apple,” somebody said. “It’s a coy invitation,” somebody else suggested. “We think it shows that Eve relished the whole thing,” Holbrook said. “She gobbled it up, for the sake of agency.” We all applauded.

I had read about half the book before attending the book talk. I’d been especially drawn to essays like Carine Decoo-Vanwelkenhuysen’s “Mormon Women in Europe: A Look at Gender Norms” (213) As a non-Utah-native, I found that my own attitudes about marriage, education, and work outside the home resemble more closely those of the women surveyed by Decoo-Vanwelkenhuysen, who are comfortable with and take for granted their and their daughters’ roles in public life, than those of many Utah women choosing domestic life over professional development because they think the Lord commands it. I listened to the talk about the book as a whole with interest and pleasure.

During the question and answer period, a member of the audience, a non-LDS professor of history, challenged Holbrook and Bowman about their use of the word “agency.” It’s inaccurate to say that Mormon women have 100% agency, she said. The system (the Church, polygamy, priesthood) limits their agency in ways the book doesn’t acknowledge. Holbrook and Bowman parried with predictably Mormon definitions and defenses: Mormon women have done remarkable things to shape the history of their church, cities, and nation. They’ve used their agency in strong ways that historians have often slighted. It was a lively but mildly awkward exchange, as neither the questioner nor the book’s editors seemed satisfied with the others’ understanding.

Later I emailed the professor for further explanation. Because she left town shortly thereafter and I didn’t ask permission to reprint her reply verbatim, I will paraphrase it here.

According to this historian, “agency,” as Mormons use the word, is a theological term—and one so universal as to be practically meaningless, since anything can be seen as an act of agency. (I must insert here that, in my experience and probably in yours, this is frequently the case: “well, s/he has his/her agency and I can’t deny them that…” “well, s/he chose that path and must take the consequences…” “well, you have your agency, do whatever you want, I can’t stop you even though I don’t like it.”)

But this is not how the social sciences use the term. In recent years, scholars of such institutions as slavery tend not to focus on resistance (an aspect of “agency”) because such a focus minimizes the horror of the institution/system itself. Perhaps slaves did resist. Perhaps Mormon women did, and do, make creative and independent choices from within the system. But the inequality, injustice, and other sometimes miserable consequences of the institutions/systems themselves must be addressed as such. The adherence to principles of obedience that lead Mormons to praise strong, accomplished women can, but shouldn’t, blind us to the cultural and historical bases of policies and strictures that are not, in my correspondent’s view, absolute truths.

This response to the book’s central theme naturally had an impact on my reading of the rest of the collection. *Women and Mormonism* consists of the proceedings of a 2012 conference arranged by Holbrook and Bowman, entitled “Women and the LDS Church: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.” That was before Ordain Women, but Holbrook and Bowman’s thoughtful introduction addresses both the complexities of the term “agency” and the ways that OW “drew significant attention to the relationship between gender and priesthood authority” (9). They conclude that “[to] hold to one metric [of official authority in measuring women’s agency] both ignores women’s exercise of agency to act within institutional parameters, and neglects possibilities for more radical conceptions…outside of [those] parameters” (ibid).

In other words, “agency” can be expressed in faith communities in multiple ways. Some of those ways look like resistance and change. Some may look like, but are not necessarily, blind obedience; conscious obedience can be a valid choice too. That stance is familiar to us all—which is why Decoo-Vanwelkenhuysen’s essay felt so refreshing to me. For European Mormon women, “obedience” doesn’t mean marrying young and forgoing education and career. It still means giving intelligent service, but there are ways to do that appropriate to culture that are not necessarily the ways prescribed in Utah. So this volume explores such options, and for that reason stimulates and revitalizes thinking about women in the Church.

There are some similarities between this volume and Patrick Q. Mason’s *Directions for Mormon Studies,* which I reviewed last week. Both are outcomes of conferences seeking to identify issues and point toward future studies. Both volumes are divided into sets of essays focused on methodology, history, social science approaches, and personal narrative. Both embrace scholarly lenses to ask questions about how and why Mormonism has evolved over time and across localities.

Some of the issues treated in *Women and Mormonism* include polygamy, material culture, Mother in Heaven, Jane James (the 19th-century African American convert who sought to be adopted by Joseph Smith), Mormon women in the Pacific and in the Sierra Leone, sexual agency, and the professionalization of reform. Mary Farrell Bednarowski’s essay on “Intersecting Paths in the Journeys of Mormon and Roman Catholic Feminists” illuminates similarities between LDS and Catholic activists:

“[Our] theological concerns go well beyond priesthood, and sometimes I wonder whether too much emphasis on achieving priesthood masks the extent to which we care about many other issues—authority, scripture, vitality of doctrine, authenticity, and responsiveness to changing times—all of which are directly related to the future well-being of our communities” (314).

Some Latter-day Saints might respond to this with the perennial reference to prophetic directives—God will give us new information when he’s ready. We don’t need to worry about the future—we’re God’s church, after all; He’ll take care of us. But Bednarowski’s naming of these issues illuminates genuine concerns for Mormon women from an angle unfettered by that perhaps too-easy fallback. Doing so can, I think, open new possibilities for strong and effective action by Mormon women so inclined.

P. Jane Hafen’s “My Book of Mormon Story” similarly offers a strong and necessary angle of vision. As a Native American, she experiences racism in many aspects of Book of Mormon interpretation. In her calling as Primary chorister she refuses to play the Primary song “Book of Mormon Stories” because its rhythms and colonizing language promote inappropriate stereotypes. Her story is honest and unflinching and should cause readers to examine attitudes they may have left unquestioned.

These and the other essays in *Women and Mormonism* foster further discussion. (I can see book groups like the one I belong to having a heyday with this volume.) This collection belongs in the library of every scholar of women’s history, religious history, or women’s religious history. Frankly, it belongs in the library of every educated Mormon woman. Imagine what might happen if it were the basis of Relief Society lessons! These are issues we need to be discussing actively and acting on together, as agents in our own milieu, in each other’s service, and in the evolution of the Church. Our history and our future demand this of us. Our sisters’, our daughters’, and our own lives within the Church may very well depend on it.