Here’s how it all went down:
I had just graduated with a bachelor’s in English from USU and was pregnant with my first baby. I wasn’t going to be “one of those women” who just lets her education go for home and hearth (whatever that means! Thank you liberal/feminist education!) so I joined the ward book club and suggested a truly literary work, Virginia Sorenson’s A Little Lower than the Angels. I had come across it on an online course reading list from BYU. It was a little risky since I hadn’t read it, but, hey, you can trust those BYU professors, right?
Seven or eight of us ladies pooled our money and ordered some copies, everybody chipping in for the shipping and handling. When the paperback copies arrived they were crisp–the pages clapped as I flipped through them the first time–and smelled that papery-inky-gluey-new-book-smell. The cover was an ominous shade of gray with a grainy black and white shot of a woman in a bandanna and it took me a couple minutes to realize she wasn’t one of the characters in the book but the author.
At first sight A Little Lower than the Angels comes across as a standard pioneer novel. Set in the Nauvoo period, it chronicles conversions and baptisms and run-ins with future prophets. What isn’t typical about it is that it is the hallmark novel of the Mormon Lost Generation. (Well, okay, maybe The Giant Joshua is the hallmark novel, but I didn’t like that one.)
I started the book with pencil in hand, ready to mark great lines and follow themes with zeal. I gave that up pretty quickly. You see, the book scared me. The love scenes between Eliza R. Snow (what young, female, Mormon English major doesn’t idolize her?) and Joseph Smith knocked my socks off. Not only did I NOT know they had been married (I idolized her, I didn’t actually study her), but I had a hard time being okay with a plural wife being taken for love and not just commandment. (I now have a more mature view of plural marriage, so please don’t hijack the comments by taking issue with that last statement.)
The other thing that surprised me was that I couldn’t put it down. For as much as it bothered, annoyed, and frightened me, it was a beautiful book. The characters were complicated and asked real questions, questions I had never even thought to think about. The irony was sharp, like lemon juice, and burned a little, but it was brilliant. I found myself mouthing the words as I read because the text demanded attention and care and utterance. I finished the book with a heavy, but invigorated, heart.
The other ladies in my club reacted differently. One woman, a recent convert, asked to borrow my copy and when I mentioned how surprised I had been by its treatment of polygamy she handed it right back. “To be honest,” she said, “Joseph Smith was the hardest part to believe in. And I haven’t come to terms with polygamy. Heavenly Mother I can take, but polygamy, I’m not so sure.” Another woman told me how when she picked up the book she had the distinct impression that she shouldn’t read it. She started anyway. After a couple days and maybe fifty pages, the Spirit came back stronger. She couldn’t deny its direction and she threw the book away. Another lady, Kelly, who later became one of my closest friends, said she enjoyed the book but she couldn’t shake the feeling that one day her kids would come across it on the shelf and it would cause problems for them. She didn’t feel good about keeping it in the house.
The kindest remark the book got at our discussion was from, Krista, the lady who ran the club. As I was leaving and apologizing for scaring everyone off she said, “Laura, it was a risky choice, but it never hurts to take a risk. It was probably good for us. “ If my life were a TV show (and I’m sure you all wish it was) Krista’s words would have been emphasized by music and daring camera angles because that’s how the memory feels. Important. Vivid. Current. Krista’s words are ones that have stayed with me through many reading and writing experiences–although I would change them a little. After all, it does sometimes hurt to take a risk, but it is usually worth it.
Looking back, I can’t speak for the other ladies, but A Little Lower than the Angels was good for me. It crosses a lot of lines and makes a lot of choices I wouldn’t make but it was good for me to see those choices in action. As I think over the other ladies’ experiences–which were as genuine as mine–I can’t help but respect them for being honest, with me and with themselves. This book isn’t for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good book.
My friend Kelly later lent me her copy of Sorenson’s memoir Where Nothing is Long Ago and I found it to be just as amazing as A Little Lower than the Angels but nowhere near as difficult. I liked it so much I contemplated stealing the copy I had borrowed. If I could go back to that first book club meeting I would suggest that one instead. You know, sort of work people into Sorenson and her writing. (Somebody please put that book back in print! Even the copies on amazon are selling for $100.)
When I look at my copy of A Little Lower than the Angels, such as it is, squished between a compilation of Dickinson poems and Nelson Mandela’s biography on my overfull bookshelf, it conjures up a host of contradictory feelings. When I pick it up the pages still clap and the smell still lingers because I haven’t ever read it again. While it was good for me, it was a risk that I was only willing to take once.
How about you all, any books like this for you? Have you been blinded by literary ambition and bitten off more than you can chew? How did the experience change you?