Here’s the thing I’ve discovered about Zarahemla Books: always, always read the back cover–especially any comments made by editor Chris Bigelow. His comments are like codes and if you can break the code then you will know what is really waiting for you when you crack the cover.
Take his comment on the back of D. Michael Martindale’s book Brother Brigham. The book summary is vague and innocuous–a man’s childhood imaginary friend revisits him and causes some uproar in his life–but Bigelow adds some spice when he says, “This is one of the wildest rides I’ve ever enjoyed in a novel, Mormon or otherwise. Like Stephen King, Martindale captures the earthy rhythms of daily life as the characters get caught up in bizarre, harrowing events. Outrageous and yet chillingly plausible within the LDS belief system, this gutsy, expertly rendered story breaks new ground in Mormon entertainment.”
Did you catch the code words? The first clue is “like Stephen King.” Then there’s “bizarre”, “harrowing”, “outrageous”, and “chillingly plausible” that provide reason for pause. Bigelow, while he is trying to get you to read this book, is also warning you: this book is like nothing you would ever casually associate with Mormon literature and you are probably going to be offended at some point. It’s a warning worth heeding.
The plot centers around C.H. and the instructions he recieves from a spirit he assumes to be his relative, the prophet Brigham Young. What C.H. doesn’t realize (SPOILER ALERT!) is that this spirit is actually the evil spirit that tricked Korihor and others in scripture. C.H., due to his pride, follows the spirit’s instructions and proceeds to get involved with drug money, take on a satan-worshipping second wife, defile a temple, commit adultery, and barely avoid raping a young girl. But that’s not all the damage. C.H.’s wife, Dani, suffers emotional damage from her husband’s visions and tries to leave him only to be stopped by the FBI at the airport and have her children taken from her and be subjected to a full body search (including her orifices). She ends up seeing an LDS marriage counselor who tells her, right after she says she feels like she has been raped because of the way the security guards violated her, that she can’t leave the room until she agrees to kiss her deadbeat husband–who recieves little church discipline because he supposedly thought he was doing the right things. Add to that the details about devil worship and the sex scene that takes place in a neighbor’s front yard while the copulators (I think I made that word up, sorry) are high and you’ve got a book that seems more like something produced by the DAMU than a supposedly faithful LDS writer.
Brother Brigham is supposed to be about a man and how his pride, pride he gets from misinterpreting a line in his patriarchal blessing, leads him astray. It’s about how, if we are too prideful, the devil can turn our good intentions into flax cord and eventually stronger cord and lead us down to hell. Which sounds like a great Mormon book. Except that’s not what Brother Brigham is really about. The book is really about evil and polygamy and drugs and how just living your normal everyday faith will only bring you to dead ends. For me, this was too much and left me with a bitter, icky feeling. (Maybe that’s because I’m a girl and this book cornered EVERY female character in it. Without exception. It was infuriating.)
Maybe that’s because, like Stephen Carter mentions in his comment on the original AMV review, this book basically skips the part about repentance and growth.
[The] ending does not satisfy the values D. Michael built up throughout the book. We have a real mess on our hands at the second to last chapter. There’s all kinds of police involvement, nothing but bitterness exists between CH and his wife. Sheila [the second wife] hasn’t actually been removed from the picture. All kinds of spiritual damage has taken place. The too-young-to-marry Cyndy admits to the police that she married CH. The list goes on. A perfect set up for the third act.
The way D. Michael led us up to this point promised that the main character would find a way through the problems (the definition of the third act) and that we’d get to watch him do it. I was really looking forward to that. But it didn’t happen. Instead we were sidetracked by a demon possession, which rendered CH unable to complete his character arc.
Demonic possession is not what D. Michael led us to be concerned about. He led us to be concerned about the people. And they never got a chance to show their real stuff.
The whole book is about the sin with nothing about the redemption. That’s why it feels inherently un-Mormon to me. Not that the ending had to be a simple happy ever after. (That was another reason the kiss in the therapist’s office was so offensive. Talk about pandering.) It could have been sad–sad is the complicated and interesting place where repentance often starts.
That said, the writing is skillful and the plot really sucks you in. The characters are deeply drawn and realistic. Martindale writes a great tale and a couple reviewers even said they thought this was the direction LDS/Mormon literature should be heading in.
I really take issue with that idea. I don’t think Mormon literature needs to be edgy or offensive to examine our culture and help us see ourselves more clearly. It certainly doesn’t need to be those things to help “build up the kingdom.” I don’t think literature needs to be those things to be interesting either. On the Road to Heaven and Bound on Earth prove that.
I think as readers and writers we sometimes neglect to weigh the spiritual cost against the literary cost. Goodness can be compelling and repentance doesn’t have to be didactic. (Les Mis and Anna Karenina come to mind as examples.) Without an exploration of redemption the spiritual cost of Brother Brigham was too high.
Pretty much everybody else who reviewed this book liked it, even Mahonri (and William if you read the comments). But I think that many middle readers in the LDS market will not. This book is included on the AMV Book Club list and I, for one, don’t think it should be.
But who am I to tell you what to read and what not to read? I just want to give you all a little more info in case you are considering it. So maybe you should read it with your book club. A book like this is bound to stir up strong emotions and passionate conversation.
But at what cost? That’s the question.