Tag Archives: mission calls

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.

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.