Brother Brigham, a supernatural thriller by D. Michael Martindale, is one of Zarahemla Books flagship titles for the year (in fact, one of its first titles). It is a book whose title I have heard bandied about for quite some time, had even read a segment of it which Martindale had put a teaser on the internet, but the novel seemed to be having a hard time finding a publisher to give it a home. And I can see why. It certainly has what I would deem very mature material, espcially for an LDS novel. A good deal of sexual material, a scene of Satan worship, drug use, spiritual possession, polygamy– yeah, it’s not going to be on the top of Deseret Book or Covenant’s acquisition list.
Fortunately, the newly christened Zarahemla Books, under their commitment to publish “adventurous” Mormon fiction, has taken a chance upon this book, to test whether there is a significant audience for daring Mormon fiction. Martindale certainly pushed my own sensibilities beyond a few limits. I didn’t mind that there was mature material, but I did think it could have been toned down a bit– sometimes a little too much detail for my taste. However, that being said, in the novel there is always a reason for vices to be included– ironcially, almost always a moral reason. Evil is never presented as good, and for every wrong decision a character makes, there are consequences– severe consequences. In many ways the novel is a morality tale. A warning against sin. Yet don’t expect some syrupy, cliched piece of propaganda here. It is skillfully written, creating a realistic, complex, difficult world where everything is not as it initially seems. It’s a page turner, the novel is a real heavy weight. Brother Brigham is a significant, thought provoking, faith affirming, intelligently written novel.
The plot revolves around the supernatural experiences of one C.H. Young and other significant people in his life, including his wife Danielle, his co-worker Shiela and the Young’s babysitter Cindy. The inciting incident which drives the story is a visitation from what appears to be C.H.’s ancestor Brigham Young. This spirit has what seems to be a revolutionary message: Because the current LDS prophet has denied a revelation from God, C.H. will by some miraculous means replace the prophet and re-institute the long abandoned principle of polygamy. This same “Brother Brigham” appears to C.H.’s wife Dani and others, setting off a chain of events that reaches a tense, dramatic climax.
One of the powerful (and frightening) aspects of the novel, is its sheer plausibility within a Mormon framework. Our history is filled with supernatural tales, representing both good and evil. And many of us have had more than our fair share of the real deal– whether with light filled spirituality, or harrowing encounters with the Adversary’s forces. This novel, although technically “speculative fiction,” has at its core what are, for many Mormons and other religious folk, rock hard realities. They are not too far off from experiences many of its readers have encountered themselves.
And that is one of Marindale’s greatest strengths and one of his greatest weaknesses: he creates a completely real, plausible world. His novel abounds with actual places which will be familiar to those who live in Utah, realistic dialogue and experiences derived from real life. For the most part, this is very effective. At a couple of times, however, near the beginning of the novel, it was becoming a little too real– a little too boring. Martindale would go into a good amount of detail about buying a mini-van, about a character’s reading habits, etc. These details could have been presented with more brevity and then moved on to events that make the novel so exciting. I don’t mind a solid use good description. In fact, I would have loved if Martindale could have embellished the story with more artful language, but Martindale seems to adhere to the Orson Scott Card school of thought about transparent prose (which, especially for a story like this, is a perfectly legitimate choice). But a novel or any dramatic story presents the highlights, and some details are meants to be glossed over, or the dramatic tension becomes flat.
However, these are small criticisms. For the most part, Martindale’s choice of making the story as “real” as possible, highlights the supernatural elements of the story and, in the process, makes the supernatural a perfectly plausible aspect in the lives of common people. It takes the “speculative” out of speculative fiction and places it squarely in the realm of possibility.
There is a great deal said in the novel about the principle of revelation, about what it is– and especially about what it isn’t. And there is what appears to be a good amount of orthodoxy in regards to the LDS Church. Unlike some other “Mormon” fiction that continually tries to belittle the efforts of many of the good hearted men and women in the Mormon hierarachy, whether it be apostles or Relief Society presidents, this book highlights what happens when men and women try to become a law unto themselves, bypassing spiritual authority. For example, instead of portraying a Bishop as some sort of two dimensional hypocrite (as many disillusioned Mormon writers relish in doing), he becomes a realistic character, even at one vital point a heroic character. This was a little surprising, especially coming from such what at other times could be considered such an “edgy” novel. The blend of the best of “conservative” and “liberal” thought made the book very balanced, in many senses very moral.
I don’t think that this is a book for everyone. There is a very select audience which will be able to handle both its earthy realism and its moral, orthodox center. However, in that way, it hits directly upon Zarahemla Book’s mission: to provide reading for those who are not satisfied with either extreme of Mormon publishing. It is neither sugar coated, nor does it attack the LDS faith. More than anything, it takes that faith seriously. Seriously enough to place it in the real world around us, making the religion a real, dynamic, thriving, even dramatic presence.
This novel and other Zarahemla Books can be purchased at www.zarahemlabooks.com.