Reviewed by Harlow Clark for the Association for Mormon Letters
Twenty odd years ago (I know, all my years are odd) a journal I had published a long story in sent me a story called “Cat Woman” requesting my opinion. I found it deeply moving, and maybe the only example I’ve seen of what it means to take our bodies to the temple and use them to aid in the redemption and salvation, the comforting, of people who no longer have bodies. The physicality of the story captured something quintessentially Mormon for me in the same way Margaret Young’s *House Without Walls* did in its playing with Abinadi’s concept of types and shadows, as Abraham, Sarah and Isaac find themselves replaying various roles from their ancestors’ lives.
Sometime later someone invited me to submit a story to an anthology he was editing and asked if I knew of any others, and I told him about “Cat Woman.” “Oh, that’s Julie Nichols’ story,” he said.
A few years later, when I was gathering fiction and poetry for Irreantum, I presented “Cat Woman” to the editors, but botched the presentation badly. I can only plead extreme sleep deprivation from having taken a casual graveyard position at the post office (where a tiny portion of each night had to do with dead letters).
My deep love for the story continues, so you can imagine how pleased I was when Jeff Needle called and asked if I would like to review the new book of stories “by our friend Julie Nichols.” Oh yes, I would. Yes, indeed.
The first story, “The Fifth Element,” is one I have been thinking about for years, since reading it in Sunstone’s December 1997 issue (https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/issue-details/?in=108). It’s a strangely disorienting story. Looking back several years, the narrator, V. Annie Macdougal, tells us about the first time she met Riva and Nina who came as substitute Sunday School teachers when she was seven:
“So it was a shock, the morning of the flu at our house, to see Riva and Nina sitting there. They wore pants, first of all, which you don’t do in our corner of Mormondom. I think it’s done on the coasts, perhaps, but not where we were. Riva had short curly hair all over her head, and Nina’s was in braids and she wore overalls. I felt … interested.”
So one is butch, the other is feminine, I thought. A lesbian stereotype? What is the author wanting us to know about the characters? Thinking about my early reaction to the story I recall something that happened a few years after high school, when my friend Tami invited me to her wedding, telling me her fiancé had gone to see his parole officer for permission to get married and learned his parole had just expired and he didn’t need permission.
One male friend at the wedding seemed incongruous, as if the groom had more connection to him than to his bride–though I couldn’t put into words why I felt that way. Right after the ceremony someone (maybe me) said “Kiss the bride!” After the kiss Tami said (referring to an adage about kissing smokers), “It’s not at all like licking an ashtray.”
So I wasn’t really surprised a few months later when Tami sent me a note that she was divorcing her husband because he was more interested in his friend than her. “He’s gay. That means he’s homosexual.” But I still wondered where I got the impression that he and his friend were a couple.
Questions about how we convey and pick up on nuance are important to writers, and particularly important in this story as Riva and Nina invite Annie to their house for parties and become something of substitute parents, helping her develop her poetry and spiritual powers. Annie doesn’t see anything unusual about this, but I did, even something alarming.
I had recently been visiting my mother-in-law at the hospital and taken my son out to play in the waiting room. A cover story in Sports Illustrated caught my eye: “Every Parent’s Worst Nightmare.” It was about predatory children’s sport coaches. One of the signs of a predator coach is inviting the children to his home, or inviting them on campouts.
“The Fifth Element” is not about sexual predation though–more spiritual predation. But Nina and Riva don’t think of it that way. Annie thinks of them as sharing their gifts with her, and they probably think of it in the same way, helping her develop and celebrate her spirituality. But they may also be unaware of the implications of what they’re doing.
The opening lines let us know we’re in the emergency room, and as the story unfolds we learn that teenaged Annie doesn’t fully understand the danger or potency of elemental powers, and there’s a strong suggestion that Riva and Nina may not either.
So one way of reading the story is as a cautionary tale about Moroni’s admonition “there are different ways that these gifts are administered” (Moroni 10:8, see also D&C 46:16). If we don’t nurture our children and help them develop their gifts they may go to people who understand the gifts but not necessarily the gospel, or our gospel commitments. Or, the story also suggests, if we try to nurture someone’s spirituality–taking on some parental role–we may do them the damage parents naturally do. Elemental powers are so great that no one fully grasps their essence or their quintessence.
The second story, “Without Number,” is something of a mirror to the first, telling how Riva and Nina met, with Riva playing Annie to Nina’s Riva and Nina.
About 18 years ago one of the herbal products companies in the valley asked me to write a book for them, a marketing tool that would give doctors some technical information about their product line, so they could recommend their products to patients. They wanted me to list each ingredient in every product along with a brief comment on its traditional uses, indications, contraindications and cautions, like “Black cohosh is an abortifacient and emmenagogue. It should not be used by pregnant women.”
Oh! That’s what that title “Pennyroyal, Cohosh, Rue” means that I saw in Sunstone (https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/issue-details/?in=65) several years ago and still puzzle over. It must be about an unwanted pregnancy. Well, yes, but there’s a lot more involved, including a story within the story set in my father’s hometown, Morgan, Utah, where my cousins and I worked the ancestral dryfarm for several summers. Reading it I could see the layout of the town and wondered if it took place up near the North Morgan chapel, or somewhere across the Weber river closer to the South Morgan chapel. I remembered walking to the North Morgan chapel with my father one day, and passing under the freeway he pointed out where a house had stood in the freeway’s path. Maybe it was there.
Heeding Walker Percy’s advice from “The Loss of the Creature,” (in *The Message in the Bottle*) that sometimes tour guides should step aside and let the tourists explore, I won’t say more about this story except that Levi Peterson’s “The Shriveprice” (http://signaturebookslibrary.org/canyons-of-grace-04/) would be a fine companion piece.
“Cat Woman” is next. The version of the story I first read and so deeply admire takes place mostly in the temple. This one does not. The temple is in the background. I suspect the rewrite has a lot to do with a sentiment I read once from Edward L. Kimball, my parents’ next door neighbor for many years, years ago, and one-time bishop. He said there were people he admired, including General Authorities, who were comfortable talking about the temple in more detail than he was, and people he admired, including General Authorities, who were comfortable talking about the temple in less detail than he was.
I imagine some people are less comfortable reading a story set in the temple than Julie Nichols was setting one there. (Anyone in comparing the two versions can request the dissertation version of this book from the UofU’s Marriott library or order a copy through Proquest.
As the book’s centerpiece, “Cat Woman” echoes the earlier stories, with one of the last images mirroring one of the final images in “The Fifth Element,” and foreshadows the later ones, especially the title story and the healing scenes in “Everything to Do With You.”
“Pigs When They Straddle the Air” is not just a witty play on an idiom meaning “Never!” but is also a reminder that in some circumstances pigs may indeed straddle the air.
“Incident in a Schoolyard” is about three troubled relationships, the itinerant preacher from “Pigs” and his son, Riva and her daughter Katie, and two wives of an abusive polygamist, who gets into an altercation with Riva’s former husband. So there’s a fourth troubled relationship.
“Incident” is about havoc and destruction, replaying the rue from “Pennyroyal, Cohosh, Rue,” in a different setting, but with similarly tragic results.
The last story, “Everything to Do With You,” is about the various characters trying to heal the chaos from “Incident in a Schoolyard,” and the chaos and loss moving through the stories as a whole. I found it moving and engrossing and will let you tour it on your own, with just a thematic note.
“The Fifth Element” suggests that perhaps priesthood is a way for those who don’t naturally have gifts like those laid out in D&C 46 to exercise those gifts. It raises the question, Who will you allow to bless you, to bless your life? Who are you willing to accept blessing and blessings from?
“Everything to Do With You” picks up on these questions, amplifying them. Are you willing to accept blessings only from the priesthood? from the non-priesthood? Will you work in concert with the priesthood / the non-priesthood to heal and help people who need the blessings of those gifts?
Questions and themes like this make Linda Sillitoe’s *Secrets Keep* (http://signaturebooks.com/secrets-keep-a-novel/) a fine companion piece for this novel, but read her essay *Off the Record: Telling the Rest of the Truth* first for some background (https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/080-12-26.pdf).
Part of what moves me so much in the final story is its emphasis on forgiving our enemies rather than destroying them. There’s much conflict and pain in this book, but Julie Nichols doesn’t opt for the destruction of the wicked tropes we see all over movies and television and politics. It invites us, instead, in the final words of one story, to work things out in “puzzlement and love.”
A Tight-Sphinctered Response to A Novel in Seven Stories
Posted on June 22, 2016 by Scott Abbott
My colleague Julie Nichols’ new book Pigs When They Straddle the Air (Zarahemla Books, 2016) kept disturbing my sleep last night. The interlocking stories have great characters, many of whom are Mormons: lesbian Mormons, straight Mormons, polygamous Mormons, energy directing Mormons, criminal Mormons, herbalist Mormons, business Mormons, lapsed Mormons, priesthood wielding Mormons, feminist Mormons, and so on. Nichols likes these characters one and almost all. She weaves their stories into an intimate textile, a text whose sentences are the work of a careful and brilliant writer; she loves language as much as she loves the people of her stories. The warm-hearted and cantankerous communities of her characters are mirrored by her rich and well crafted paragraphs.
But that wasn’t what kept waking me up. It was the healers. New-age healers, no less than Mormon priesthood healers, are, in my mind, wishful and hopeful and mistaken and sometimes outright frauds. A “master healer” from California dominates the book’s final story, the one I read before falling asleep. The healer heals an autistic boy. Horse shit, I muttered. The healer heals a comatose victim of a head wound (or perhaps it was the priesthood healers who did the healing, or was it the child performing “child reflexology” who did the healing?). Bull shit, I said. And so on.
I had been warned. Karin Anderson wrote in a blurb that the book made her willing and even delighted “to suspend my own (painful) cynicism and simply follow the mystical premises of the story.” I obviously wasn’t quite so willing to suspend my own (painstaking) cynicism.
So I woke again and again wondering what to think about a book that elicited responses from me like “chicken shit.” I wouldn’t have cared about any of this if I didn’t like the book, if I didn’t like the characters, if I didn’t find the book challenging, if it weren’t meaningful to me.
One answer came this morning when I reread a paragraph following the child reflexology healing/California healer healing/priesthood holder healing:
In every season follow nature skyward: snowshoe first at the edges of snowmelt in late March to catch the pale upturning springbeauties and woodlandstars and the hanging yellow glacier lilies.
Nichols I thought, a sudden thought, maybe even an epiphany, loves nature like I love nature. These are my flowers. I know them. They help me make sense of the universe. Nichols’ characters love nature too. So what if they also love the super-natural? Give them a break. Loosen your rational sphincter a bit. You don’t have to believe them. Their believing is their business. Isn’t it interesting, after all, to find your way into minds like these — such varied minds and bodies all of whom the author so clearly loves.Come on man, you can straddle the air for a bit. Nobody’s asking you to walk on water.