Virginia Sorenson: the Book Club edition?

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?

19 thoughts on “Virginia Sorenson: the Book Club edition?”

  1. (Somebody please put that book back in print! Even the copies on amazon are selling for $100.)

    Your wish is their command. Would’ve been mine, but Signature got there first.

    I loved this essay, Laura, and I am going to pick up a copy of A Little Lower than the Angels ASAP as it seems to be right up my alley.

  2. My wife Sandra had something of a similar experience when she suggested “Saints” by Orson Scott Card (which also has a love scene involving Joseph Smith and a polygamous wife, Dinah Kirkham, who is a composite of several historical individuals, including Eliza Snow) for a book reading group in our ward. A few of the women loved it, but others were quite scandalized by much of the book.

    “Saints” remains my favorite LDS historical novel, though “A Little Lower than the Angels” sounds outstanding as well. ..bruce..

  3. Fixed! — you missed the close tag. I’ve tried to graft on a system that will allow for some basic tag buttons, but no luck so far.

    ————-

    What a fascinating account, Laura. I love that the reactions varied so much, and that they are valid. Or at least I see them as valid. I don’t mean that in some “diversity of diversity’s sake” way, but rather as an acknowledgment that Mormons can have different reactions to a work of art — and all those reactions are Mormon.

    I have never read any of Sorenson’s work. I tried to read The Evening and the Morning and just couldn’t get into it. Which is unusual for me. I rarely set aside novels without finishing them.

  4. My experience reading A Little Lower Than the Angels was rather like another experience I had when I went to Paris a few years ago with my husband and another couple. We took a day to tour the Louvre, and while there I saw the most amazing sculpture. It was all marble ““ a nude reclining on a couch. What was awe-inspiring to me was how soft the couch cushions looked; it made me want to lay down on it. The craftsmanship was superb. I walked over to get a closer look, walked around to the front view of the work, only to be shocked by what I saw next. There was a sign indicating the piece was entitled “Hermaphrodite,” and I recall stopping in my tracks in disbelief thinking, “wait, this sculpture has…um…well…parts!” At that point I didn’t know whether to love the piece or be horrified by it.

    I have that duality of feeling with Virginia Sorensen’s novel. Again, the craftsmanship is superb. It is what she chooses to say with that craftsmanship that leaves me dumbfounded and even horrified at times. Her novel has…um…well…parts! It does not know what it is! Is this novel wistfully describing a pioneer heritage that Virginia respects and loves, or is it describing a great travesty that she despises and ultimately rejects? Was Joseph Smith really a prophet, holding the priesthood keys as authorized by God to direct the affairs of His church and kingdom on earth, or was he a misguided and corrupt man who abused his power over others, betrayed his wife, and mistook his carnal desires for promptings of the Spirit? She masterfully sculpts her answer to include both — a view to which I cannot reconcile myself.

    I particularly cannot reconcile myself to the “love scene” in which Joseph proposes marriage to Eliza R. Snow. He practically tells Eliza he doesn’t love Emma and only loves her. He comes off as manipulative and willing to say whatever it takes to get what he wants. And Emma is painted in no flattering light either. To be fair, perhaps in Virginia’s life experience most church members vilified Emma because in the end she left the church, and perhaps they glorified Eliza because not only did she stay faithful but she also had revelations of her own. Maybe Virginia grew up hearing and believing that. But I find that a poor excuse to push that opinion onto Joseph in this scene ““ that Eliza would be more worthy of love than Emma. I know without question that Joseph and Emma loved each other very deeply, and this whole scene rings untrue to me. We know Joseph was distressed by the idea of polygamy, he did not want to hurt Emma, and it was only when threatened with destruction that he chose to comply.

    Virginia Sorensen is clearly also distressed by the idea of polygamy, which I’m sure many LDS women can relate to. She doesn’t know what to make of it. On the one hand, she clearly points out the non-LDS idea that it was men abusing the idea of priesthood and revelation to control and even sexually abuse the women around them. (This is totally believable today if you are at all familiar with Warren Jeffs and the abuses taking place with his sect. I personally don’t believe that’s how it went down in Joseph’s time. That is simply how the idea has become corrupted.) On the other hand, Virginia shows evidence of how it can be useful and helpful ““ when the main character is too sick to run the household and care for her children, her husband marries another woman to help with the house and ease his ailing wife’s burdens. But you can’t have it both ways ““ was it the wisdom of God or the carnal foolishness of men? I wish Virginia would get an opinion about it instead of wringing her hands and distressing herself about it ““ shaking her lack of testimony before our eyes, shaking our own testimonies as a result, and then just walking away without resolving the issue.

    And this is the most horrifying thing about the novel ““ it can shake a testimony. It sounds almost like anti-Mormon literature at times, and certainly challenges the reader to question their own beliefs. A little questioning can certainly be good for you, but her novel fills the reader with doubt about the truth of anything we’ve heard about the history of the Church. Some can perhaps read it as an intellectual exercise, learn from it, and enjoy the experience. But I have no doubt that others are not mature enough to handle the questioning and criticisms leveled at Joseph and the Church in this novel. Heaven forbid that my 9-year-old daughter should peruse my bookshelf and get her hands on this one.

    And so, like all good artwork, I stand and peruse this work and proclaim the craftsmanship to be worthy of our attention. I wish all LDS literature were so well-done in its beauty of language, excellent character development, interesting plot, and desire to share the truth as the author sees it. But to love a piece of art is not necessarily to adorn the walls of your home with it — or your bookshelves.

  5. I tried reading it about ten years ago and couldn’t get past the first 40 or 50 pages (right around the proposal scene, if I recall). The writing was astoundingly beautiful, but I couldn’t get past Joseph and Eliza’s characters. From what I knew about who they were, Sorensen’s portrait didn’t wash for me. Had I not been LDS and gone into it without any preconceived notions, I’m sure I would have read the whole thing and loved it.

    As it was, I reluctantly abandoned it, because although the writing was stunning, I couldn’t for one second believe the story or the characters. I didn’t buy it for a second.

    On the other hand, I’m sure part of that was the discomfort Kelly describes above.

  6. Mojo-Glad you liked this post!

    Bruce–my feelings about OSC’s _Saints_ is a whole other post . . .

    William! I can’t believe you haven’t read it! Put it on your list with _The Backslider_ 🙂

    Kelly–Thanks for responding. I always respect your opinion and appreciate your thinking.

    Annette–this book never fails to stir up deep feelings in people. Good for you for giving it a try.

  7. Oh, and Mojo–thanks for pointing out that Signature sells it through their site. I’m not sure why they don’t have it listed at Amazon . . .

  8. Wow.

    I’m really surprised to hear that so many people had negative reactions to ALLTTA. I read this book probably 5 years ago (while an English major at BYU) and loved it. We’ve always had Sorensen’s book around the house. I remember my mom reading her novel “Plain Girl” to us (4 boys) during summer break one year.

    I was surprised to hear the story of the woman who felt prompted to get rid of the book. Honestly, I questioned that story at first. But I was wrong to question it. Just because I like it, that doesn’t mean that it would be good for everyone. It could very well be that reading this story would have been damaging to someone’s faith and therefore entirely plausible that the spirit would tell her not to read it.

    I guess I’m just surprised because that was not at all my reaction. If anything, I felt my faith strengthened by reading this book because it gave me a new appreciation for how hard it really was to be a Mormon at that time.

  9. Laura (8):

    It is there (Where Nothing Is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood).

    I think the link to the Signature edition isn’t connected to the old edition for some reason. At the moment, Amazon says that they are “temporarily out-of-stock” of the book, so it may be better to get it from Signature (assuming that they didn’t let it go out-of-print or something — Signature is bad about that kind of thing).

  10. I’m afraid this kind of reaction to literature isn’t that unusual. It is behind the hesitation by mainstream LDS publishers (Deseret Book/Covenant, Cedar Fort, etc.) and retailers to carry more challenging LDS fiction. Had these same bookclub members purchased their copies from an LDS store, I’ll bet at least one of them would have complained to the store about them carrying an “anti-Mormon” or “inappropriate” book.

    I wish I knew what to do about this kind of reaction and the fall-out that it causes. I don’t mind as much that people have this reaction as I do that the reaction leaves the rest of us without access to these books.

  11. I agree the reaction to the books themselves is not the problem. It is when we try to prevent others from reading them. I know, for instance, that Laura dislikes Dickens as an author, but she isn’t trying to keep me from reading it, nor does she really care if others read it. The problem is when we as Mormons try to protect one another from what we don’t like. (OK, hypocrite alert — I am protecting my children from it, but mothers have that right.)

    We also have this tendency to judge one another’s testimonies based on the books we read, which is unfortunate. I even got this once from a non-LDS friend. She claimed my eternal salvation was at stake because I allowed my 11 year old son to read Harry Potter books — I am leading him down the slippery slope to witchcraft or something. My response was, “It’s fiction. It’s just a book.”

    I guess I wish we could do the same with LDS fiction. “It’s fiction. It’s just a book.” And in this case, a very well written book whose message does not necessarily resonate with me, and even really bothers me. But Laura can say the same about Dickens. And we can agree to disagree.

    Hugs to Laura — good post and good discussion here!

  12. Kelly! I can’t believe you outed me about Dickens! *winks* I can still be a blogger for AMV, right?

    I wonder if there is some way to sell/market more challenging LDS literature without going broke. Well, that’s the quintessential question isn’t it.

    I’m glad that Kent and JKC are understanding about the one woman who got rid of the book. She is a really strong, smart woman and in that moment my respect grew for her quite a bit. I firmly believe she was acting according to the Spirit’s direction for her. It wasn’t the Spirit’s direction to me, but it was to her.

    This is a little tangential, but I think sometimes edgy/challenging/whatever you want to call LDS fiction doesn’t sell because sometimes readers are just too weary. I haven’t read Sorenson’s book again because it was such an intense experience. There’s no guaranteeing if I were to pick it up again that I would have the same experience, but I’m not that anxious to find out. I’ve got too many other things on my plate!

  13. The one time I thought I bit off more than I could chew was in undergrad taking a Women’s Lit. class. We had the book “Pornography and Silence” as a part of our course reading. It was basically a literary analysis of pornographic literature delving into its dehumanizing influence on women.

    Fascinating and compelling reading. But it didn’t pull any punches, and made me a bit sick at points. I felt like I had learned a valuable lesson by the time I finished it. But it was a bit rough.

    I’d grown up in a family where you were taught to respect books. But looking at the book, I found I didn’t really want to open it again. It would just feel like wallowing. So I chucked it in a trash bin and moved on.

  14. As for Joseph Smith, the more controversy I’ve read about him, the better and better I’ve liked him.

    I grew up distrusting whitewashed pictures of people – especially historical figures. The more human Joseph became to me, the more I warmed up to him.

    And what a fascinating person! He took on the world. He thundered into the American religious scene leaving a trail of wreckage in his wake and scared the entire Christian world half to death.

    He was a visionary, a man far beyond his time, he had a radical and powerful vision of the destiny of human society and humanity itself. For all his visions and insight however, he never struck me as a very practical man. He often trusted people far too much, even after they had proven themselves unworthy of such trust. He had a powerful temper, and a strong sense of personal honor that did not bear insult very well. And I just don’t think he knew how to handle human relationships all that well. I think it showed very much in his marriages.

    It was left to the formidably practical Brigham Young to take stock of what Joseph had unleashed and turn it into a system that everyone could at least live with.

    But for all that, Joseph was magnificent. He was a true prophet in the Old Testament mold. I’m sure the world had not seen anything like him since Paul the Apostle stood in defiance before Caiaphas. I don’t think we’ve seen anything quite like it since either.

  15. Amen, Seth. Very well put.

    ——–
    To answer Laura’s question:

    Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko is more than I can chew. It’s not a novel that I can recommend. It’s content is quite graphic. It is also not a politically correct novel (Silko has been criticized for her treatment of homosexual characters). It is, however, a radical re-visioning of the world. An apocalyptic dream. A post-environmental catastrophe/anti-consumerist prophecy.

    I’ll never read it again.

  16. Amen, Seth.

    William and Laura, not really a big C.Dickens fan either (which frustrates my mother, who really loves his work).

    I have not read ALLTTA, though I think will probably pick it up now and read through it for interests’ sake. I am woefully ignorant of Mormon Lit prior to about 1990 and need to get up to speed on a bunch of it.

    I have, surprisingly, bitten off more than I could chew with a book by Thomas Merton. I have always admired his life and commitment to faith. And it is my goal to go on spiritual retreat to Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky (where Merton spent much of his spiritual and literary life).

    And when I picked up the Seven Storey Mountain to read, I was really blown away by his facility for writing. But, about half way through the book where he describes his conversion story and that revelatory moment where religion takes hold of his life, I had to put the book down and stop reading. To this day, I cannot put my finger on quite what made me stop reading. I just had this unbelievably uncomfortable sensation, and literally put the book back on the shelf (mid-sentence).

    Now, this is a book about about how a young man finds faith and embarked on a tremendous career as a writer. What is so difficult in that? I have no idea. But, it was one of the weirdest sensations I have ever had while reading.

    A year or two later, I did pick the book up, struggled through the feeling and finished it. In the end, I enjoyed the writing very much, but something in the telling of the conversion story stopped me dead.

    ????????

  17. I just want say I enjoy the book when I was 9yr old. (1967). I still have my copy of the book, but mine is a gray hard cover. And My grandmother went to a book signing and I have it sign by Virginia Sorenen. I am going to let my grandauther read the book this sumer. I see the cover has change. I still love the story and find it is nice for girls to read and see what kind of thing went on.

    Thank You
    Bebbie

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