Ugh, More “Rules:” Cozy Campus “Chick Lit” for Mormon Girls (MML Summer Reading AND Back-to-School Edition)

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Fowers, Stephanie.  Rules of Engagement.  American Fork, UT:  Covenant, 2005.

Samantha Skyler is a 25-year-old undergrad at BYU on her way to becoming an unhappy old maid.  She shares a run-d0wn apartment in one of Provo’s generic BYU-approved apartment complexes with three single co-eds who are no spring chickens themselves, at least by respectable Mormon standards.  So as finals loom one fall semester, the four girls of apartment C6 suffer much consternation at being single.  They anxiously abide the overbearing advice of fellow student ward member, Harrison Bean, a Brit with Henry Higgins’ pretensions, who appears halfway through the narrative to school the hand-wringing maids on how to catch one of the eligible men who reside conveniently within their ward boundaries.

In their often half-hearted and messy pursuit,  studying for finals is pushed to the periphery:  they hilariously decorate their already decorated apartment for Christmas, engage in ultimate frisbee games with their Family Home Evening brothers in the snow, pretend to study in the library so they can be “safe-walked” home by male ward members, swipe objects from these same brothers’ pad and hold them for ransom behind their own apartment’s “chastity line,” attend church meetings, and throw dessert parties–not necessarily in that order.  Somehow, in spite of herself, Samantha–the most unconventional (she plays rock guitar), poorly groomed, and uncensored (“Dash Diddly Dog!” she constantly “curses”)–co-ed of the lot ends up with the boy she least expects to end up with, and now she won’t have to worry about that career she was dreading after all.

Key Quotes:  ” . . . I saw Scott too late.  He was brooding in the hallway and I smacked right into him, almost pushing him over the Chastity Line.  He teetered over the invisible barrier that exists in all BYU apartments between the front room and the hall that leads to the bedrooms” (28).

“‘Maybe you’re right,’ I said. ‘I shouldn’t date.  I should just give up and become a Mormon nun’” (127).

“Of course, we had only half a week left to get engaged, which was completely improbable, but Harrison could work miracles, especially if I could get a date out of the deal.  A date was practically an engagement anyway, right?  Especially at BYU” (237).

What Makes It Marginal:  While not affiliated with the LDS Church, Covenant only publishes “faith-promoting” books that adhere to LDS Church standards, so the “marginal” here is pretty minimal:  Samantha plays rock guitar, is an aspiring author, and an unapologetically terrible cook.  She displays an irreverence at odds with conventionally constructed Mormon womanhood.  The Articles of Faith are satirically riffed on.  The idea of rushing into marriage is called into question to some degree:  the “high rate” of Mormon divorce is mentioned.  The compulsion to marry  before graduation is a BYU cliche that’s very operative here.

What Makes It Mormonal:   Scenes take place at church meetings, characters adhere to and reference BYU rules, students fulfill church callings.  The general portrait constructed here is one of a unified community of faithful, believing LDS students.  The only thing resembling physical contact between any of these young single adults are furtive elbow grabs and one awkward mistletoe kiss between one couple.

My Two Cents:   Technically, as a piece of non-literary, faith-promoting fiction–this falls out of the boundaries of my original MML Library School study, but I felt compelled to blog about a piece of Mormon “chick lit,” which this novel’s been marketed as.  Overall, I found the novel tedious, although it did accurately represent the boredom, time-wasting, and silliness inherent campus life, particularly at BYU.   Still, there is so much glaring, flouncing off,  stomping around and pointless consternation among and between the characters, that I found myself skipping pages, and the characters, in their realistic-for-BYU homogeneity,  quickly began to resemble each other.  Samantha, the protagonist, stands out, however, and often refers to herself as “punk,” and she’s boisterous and physical, and relatively uncensored.  In light of this, it was troubling for me to see her lament so pitiably about growing old and single, but I fear that is an accurate reflection of the way so many single female students still see themselves on BYU campus, where the emphasis is still not so much on academics for women, as on matrimony and future motherhood.

Nice Secular Vampire Shakes Things Up in the Mormon Suburbs

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Devoted Mormon mother, Rachel Forsythe is married to a supportive, loving husband who is also the bishop of their ward.  But not even he, with his formidable priesthood powers, can seem to save their youngest daughter who languishes in the  hospital with a mysterious terminal illness.

Enter Milada Daranyi, a young single woman who  moves into the rental next door in their Sandy, Utah neighborhood.  The chief investment officer of  Daranyi Enterprises, Milada is in Salt Lake City  to take over a medical technology company.  Not just a good capitalist, Milada is an excellent vampire:  In a way that would make Stephenie Meyer proud, Milada’s sustenance comes from the University of Utah’s blood bank’s stores, where her vampire sis works as a doctor.

When Rachel sees Milada successfully bring a bee-stung neighborhood kid out of  anaphylactic shock, Rachel wonders what Milada can do her daughter.  In chapters alternating between Rachel’s and Milada’s respective points of view, Woodbury weaves the lives of these two very different women together in close and transformative ways.

Key Quotes:  “As happy as Milada was with her Ozzie and Harriet accommodations, it occurred to her that Mormons might take some getting used to” (34).

“She looked inside herself and found no doubt at all.  And if she’d come to believe as well that the albino lady down the street was four-plus centuries old and could perform a miracle on her dying daughter that no doctor could?  Why not exercise that faith” (141).

What Makes it Mormonal:  Milada notes the Utah-sounding names (LaDawn), Fast Sunday is observed, Rachel refers to her husband as “the bishop,” boys visit Milada’s house collecting fast offerings, full-time missionaries pay a visit to Milada

What Makes it Marginal:  Rachel resents her husband’s busy bishop’s schedule, Rachel is internally negative and openly “grouchy” about the monthly fast Sunday ritual, mild sex scene between Rachel and “the bishop,”

My Two Cents:   A paranormal medical and family drama written with a straight face, Woodbury takes a big chance with incongruity which could come off as silly but almost never does.   Essentially, he’s written a feminist novel, where  a woman, in a patriarchal religious context, is the one who takes over and performs the narrative’s necessary miracle when the area’s conventional powers (hegemonic religion, conventional medicine) have failed, which, come to think of it,  is another big reason this novel is “marginal.”

Big Sin and Even Bigger Redemption in Dinosaur Land

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Vernal Promises

Harrell, Jack.  Vernal Promises.  Salt Lake City:  Signature Books, 2003.

Newly married Jacob Dennison throws the dairy aisle during the night shift in Vernal, Utah.  He and his wife, Pam, are trying to straighten up and be good Mormons, but Jacob is haunted by his troubled past and he quickly veers off the straight and narrow and heads north to  roughneck in Wyoming and run drill bits  for his shady step-father.  Away from Pam, who discovers she’s pregnant in Jacob’s absence, Jacob collapses into sin:  drinking, smoking, drugs, and fornication, eventually coming under the sway of an ersatz magician and self-described prophet who preaches that true freedom and salvation only comes from denying Christ, and uses violence to underscore his points.  Can Jacob’s bolo tie wearing Mormon bishop save Jacob from such powerful forces?  Will Jacob ever  become the Mormon dad that Pam hopes and prays for him to be–the true believing, faithful father that Jacob, himself, never had?  Pulled between overwhelming temptation and the promise of redemption, Jacob engages in a struggle of St. Augustine-like proportions and almost loses everything, including himself, in the process.

Key quotes:  “Jacob imagined spheres of truth floating in the desert air.  There was a sphere of truth that said today was Saturday. There was a sphere that said God had created the air he was breathing.  There was a sphere that said he could think about a scripture when he was stoned.  Certain things were true no matter what else was true.  He was stoned, and that was true” (76).

What Makes it Marginal:  Copious and frank descriptions of drug use.   Allusions to sexual situations.  A temple married returned missionary pilfers damaged goods from the snack aisle at the store where Jacob works.

What Makes it Mormonal:  This narrative follows a basic Christian redemption paradigm:  the fallen protagonist eventually repents and makes his way back to the Church which is constructed as the locus of transcendent happiness, security, and salvation.  Scenes of blessings using consecrated oil.

My Two Cents:  One of the few examples of Mormon literary fiction in which a central female character plays out an  experience of religious doubt and temptation, it’s also one of the few I’ve read that embraces what has become (at least in the 21st century United States) a certain kind of marginal Mormonism, one constructed around blue collar, non-college educated characters.  (So far, this has been the only MML novel I’ve read that features scenes of physical violence.) For me, this novel is notable for its unflinching realism and the relatively extreme ways it pushes the envelope of sin in a Mormon context.

Tormented Middle-Aged Mormon Dad Recalibrates in a California River

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Fillerup, Michael.  Beyond the River.  Salt Lake City:  Signature Books, 1995.

Forty-one year old Jon Reeves, burdened with  family and financial obligations, church callings. and too many unfulfilled dreams, is in the throes of a mid-life crisis, something Mormons in good standing aren’t necessarily supposed to have.  Instead of writing the Great American Novel, he’s toiling away at educational grants in the basement of the high school where he used to teach–not to mention that fact that his teenaged daughter is questioning her faith, his son is being traumatized by a bully, and his youngest lives with a life-threatening illness.  Jon, in his words has been so “snarly” to his wife, Natalie, lately that his “absence will be a reprieve.”  An impromptu solo trip to the Sacramento Valley river of his youth incites a flood of memories:  the brilliant and tragic high school girl who compelled him to be a writer, his struggles  football, his humbling mission to Mexico, his domineering father, his time at BYU where he meets and marries Natalie, who seems to know exactly what she wants from life.  At the river, Jon wrestles the demons from his past, yells at God, and  finds the courage to return to his life and make it better than it is.

Key Quotes: Jon Reeves to his Bishop:   “‘Why would I want to become like God?  Myriads of beings and so many kids they’d have to wear name tags for me to keep them straight.  I can’t even handle the three I have.  Kingdoms, dominions, world without number . . . It sounds like a great big administrative headache’” (172).

“What’s their point!  All of this fasting and praying and handshaking and right-hand-raising and scripture searching, tithe-paying, pew sitting, head-nodding, yes Bishop Finley, no Bishop Finley . . . We do all these things, but it doesn’t do any good–doesn’t do me any good” (144).

What Makes it Marginal: An ease and openness with metaphysical doubt; Jon, a member of the bishopric, confesses his problems with deep Mormon doctrine to the bishop; scenes of temptation and nearly succumbing to temptation; many moments of questioning and doubt; as a full-time missionary, Jon draws a quasi-erotic rendering of a young investigator in his journal; Jon strips off his temple garments in a stifling mountain cabin with a twinge of guilt.

What  Makes it Mormonal: Family members take their church callings seriously, the intimacy and ease of the conversations with God, conventional faith-affirming missionary moments.

My Two Cents: Told mostly in internal monologue and taking a tone of near desperation, Michael Fillerup may have written the first Mormon complaint novel that comes from a place of belief. Honest and frank about how strict adherence to a faith can, at times, hinder more help, and in spite the cliché of finding oneself by losing oneself (and in nature–another easy trope), I found it affecting.

When Good Mormon Families Go (Mildly) Bad

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Hallstrom, Angela. Bound on Earth.  Woodsboro, MD:  Parables, 2008.

Three generations of Palmers, a devout Mormon family, alternatively narrate separate, but linked, personal stories, and in the process construct a complex and often troubling family history.  Everyone’s flawed here to varying degrees:  Unable to deal with her husband Kyle’s mental illness, Beth is wracked with guilt over leaving him;  the early marital troubles of Beth’s parents, Nathan and Alicia, are revisited; awkward older sister Marnie  doesn’t want to go on a mission after BYU; youngest sister Tina is a tattooed and troubled apostate, Grandmother Tess acutely feels the strain of her spouse’s stroke. Hallstrom delicately, and at times starkly, turns the genre of the “Mormon-mandated personal history” on its ear, in her honest novel about imperfect, intertwined lives.

Key Quote: “What if Mr. Glassing got in real trouble?  What if he got so mad he decided to heck with all of us?  It was embarrassing, sometimes, being these sheltered Mormon kids who never got to experience Real Life or understand True Art.  I could tell Mr. Glassing felt sorry for us” (109).

What Makes It Marginal: Doubt of God’s influence in one’s life is expressed, the implications of mental illness and Mormonism is explored, a child’s testimony during sacrament meeting is seen as cliched, Tina has an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and marries outside the Church.

What Makes It Mormonal: Characters are temple wed, full-time mission veterans, the inclusion of popular Mormon dictums like “Families Can Be Together Forever”

My Two Cents: I’m not a big fan of narratives told from a variety of perspectives.  There are so many personal stories to keep track of here (I found myself having to frequently consult the little genealogical chart at the front of the book), and at times the prose style is too tentative and diffuse, but Hallstrom is to be commended for gently deconstructing long circulated “cozy” notions of what it means to be an eternal family without being at all polemical.

Swarthy Bostonian Converts, Makes Disfellowshipped Orem RM’s Life Even More Complex

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Bigelow, Christopher Kimball. Kindred Spirits.  Provo, Utah:  Zarahemla, 2007.

Returned missionary and ex-patriate Utahan, Eliza Spainhower unwittingly meets a potential mate when she leaves “pass-along cards” for proselytizing  cards on a Boston subway car. As fervent a Mormon as she is, Eliza’s been disfellowshipped from full membership due to a recent sexual indiscretion that she’s still trying to repent from. This new man (“a dark Easterner” ) Eric–a non-Mormon who she thinks could be converted–is making the path back difficult, however, and Eliza will test the limits of her own repentance process as she tries to simultaneously convert Eric and become intimately involved in his complex life.

What makes it Marginal: A general irreverence or realistic/humanistic view of sacred rituals:  for example, Eliza laughs at the way her father looks in his baptismal clothes.  Realistic and sympathetic view of Wicca.  Descriptions of pre-marital sexual activity.  Respectful allusions to alternative/scholarly Mormon-themed journals like Sunstone and Dialogue. Eliza has a tarot reading.  Descriptions of non-doctrinal Mormon beliefs.

What makes it Mormonal: Mormon characters readily allude to spiritual experiences:  Eliza’s mother mentions seeing the spirit of dead son in a priesthood blessing circle. Eric admires Eliza’s parents lavish food storage: there is a missionary guided tour of Temple Square, a priesthood blessing, frank discussions of deep Mormon doctrine, and detailed scenes of Eric’s baptism, and a family sealing ceremony in the novel’s epilogue.  Eliza’s father and uncles are  named after Nephite military officers from the Book of Mormon

Key Quotes: “She told herself that she drank instant decaf simply for the good flavor, but she knew deep down that she was being a little passive-aggressive toward the church” (12).

“After that she never binged and purged again, but she sometimes wondered about Hanniah, trying to remember more about her.  Why had Hanniah chosen to take the devil’s side? Had Eliza almost followed on that path?  As a tempting spirit, had Hanniah been whispering evil ideas into Eliza’s head since she’d reached the age of accountability?” (106).

My two cents: The fact that Zarahemla publisher Bigelow self-published this title  might make it easy to dismiss, but Bigelow confidently channels Levi S. Peterson‘s earthy realism, making a relatively conventional redemption/conversion narrative feel original, in a large part due to Bigelow’s obvious fascination with non-doctrinal Mormon beliefs which he  at times bumps up against Wiccan beliefs and practices.

Mormon Surfer Goes to Provo, Gets a Testimony

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Thayer, Douglas. The Conversion of Jeff Williams. Salt Lake City: Signature, 2003.

Sixteen-year-old Mormon Jeff Williams has religious but not over-bearing parents, two devout older brothers, and considers himself, in comparison, a good enough Church member, in spite of the fact he’s a bit of a beach bum and likes to imbibe the occasional beer. But then he spends the summer in Provo–the “Mormon Mecca” as he sardonically refers to it–with his rich cousin, Christopher, whose serious kidney disease has compelled him to prepare for a full-time proselytizing mission, and Jeff finds he’s influenced by Christopher more than he necessarily wants to be.

What Makes It Marginal: relatively realistic discussions of a teenager’s emotional life, allusions to sex and drugs, etc.

What Makes It Mormonal: It’s a conversion narrative, pure and simple; many scenes depict prayer, church meetings, and include accurate allusions to Mormon theology, especially about the afterlife.

Key Quote: “I was no straight arrow like Christopher, but it wasn’t as if I had done anything serious like dealing drugs, stealing cars, assault with a deadly weapon, pornography, or even sex. I’d decided that I would probably have a testimony in time for my mission and be spiritual enough when I was nineteen” (11).

My Two Cents: Septuagenarian Douglas Thayer, approaching JD Salinger, does an admirable job of constructing the emotional life and channeling the uncensored voice of an often conflicted yet good-hearted teenaged boy.