Category Archives: deep doctrine

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.

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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.