Review: Under the Cottonwoods and other Mormon stories

The short stories in Douglas Thayer’s collection Under the Cottonwoods and other Mormon stories are definitely Mormon — very Mormon, very male, very Provo. All (ten) of them feature male characters — many of them age 18-22– who live or grew up in Provo in the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s. I suppose one could fault Thayer for this narrow focus, but I would argue that the results testify to the power of concentrating one’s creative efforts on one slice of life, for collectively these stories powerfully capture an important aspect of Mormon culture — the joys and costs of the burden of expectations that Mormon men (especially young men) are expected by their families and wards to carry.

The list of expectations shows up in different forms throughout the stories, but the elements remain the same: mission, college, married in the temple, good job (hopefully in one of the professions), and kids.

In “The Clinic,” a young man comes back to Provo from Vietnam to find that those he left behind expect him to resume the his life track — enroll in college, begin dating — and are surprised when he shows no interest in either of those things. In “Greg,” a young man faces the realization that one moment of sexual sin will probably lead to him missing out on a mission and perhaps even college and tries to get up the courage to go to his bishop and confess. In “Testimony,” a father who has just ordained his son a priest worries about all the temptations — drugs, sex — that seem more prevalent than when he was growing up and hopes that his son gets up and bears his testimony as a sign that he is on the right track.

All of the stories feature straightforward, stripped down (but not overly sparse) Raymond Carver-like prose and are told in third person limited omniscient with liberal use of free indirect discourse. In addition, certain images and tropes carry across stories. These stories are about blood, guns, fathers, sons, fishing, death, being an example, clothes and cars. Several of the stories feature characters who are obsessed (some almost compulsively) about physical cleanliness (linked as it were to moral cleanliness) — they take showers and change their clothes more than once a day. In several of the stories we find fathers who don’t hold family prayers or bear their testimonies — who believe but aren’t demonstrative. Several of the fathers are also worried about how the world seems to pressing in on Provo, its temptations much more available, the innocence and cohesiveness of a homogenous way of Mormon life ebbing away.

These repeated themes and symbols combined with the style and point of view create an intense reading experience.

Not all the stories work. The shocking ending of “The Rabbit Hunt” is a bit heavy-handed, the irony too thick, the conclusion too blunt. “Zarahemla,” a story about a young father who realizes that it finally may be time to sell the small-town Utah stone house he inherited from his grandmother (pioneer and plural wife), lacks the power of the other stories — it’s nice and all, but the collection would be fine without it.

The best story of the lot is “Elder Thatcher.” The entire narrative takes place as the returned missionary of the title sits on the stand in sacrament meeting and thinks about his mission and what he’s going to say to the congregation, struggling with whether or not to give them the values-affirming, standard RM, welcome home talk that they all expect or do what a disaffected, bitter RM had challenged him earlier that day to do — to “not tell more lies” than he has to (77). The power of the story is that as Elder Thatcher, who went on his mission because that was what they (his family, his ward) had all expected of him, unsure of his testimony, recalls the reality of his mission — the homesickness, the doubts, the elders who tortured themselves with memories of home or who fought or who didn’t do work, the elders who had strong testimonies and worked hard, the members in Germany where he served, the feeling that his body was aging, that he was losing two years of his youth and vitality, the unresponsive people who answered the door and stared blankly at them when they said they were messengers of Christ — it becomes apparent that he has truly gained a testimony, a living testimony.

He realizes: “The gospel wasn’t sentimental; it was real, fact. He had seen it change individual converts, whole families, dozens of missionaries, and he had begun to see now what it had done to him and how it had made him new” (104).

Thayer is too good of a writer to actually dramatize Elder Thatcher’s talk, but we are left with the feeling that he is going to find a way to make all those people in the congregation — all of them and their expectations — realize that his mission wasn’t just another thing to check of the list, a nice thing to do, a thing that all Mormon young men from Provo should do.

It’s a great story. One of the best in Mormon literature.

And the entire collection is a true Mormon classic. Thayer manages to strike the right balance. These stories are respectful of Mormon culture and tradition and the desire of the older generation to see its young men stay close to the Church (especially outwardly i.e. the ‘list’ mentioned above). But they also dramatically illustrate how those expectations are not without cost for the young men upon whom they are placed.

Source: Douglas H. Thayer. Under the Cottonwoods and other Mormon stories. Frankson Books: Provo, 1977.

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