Weekend (Re)Visitor: “Family History”

With this post Weekend (Re)Visitor joins  Short Story Friday and as one of AMV’s Friday features. It involves one of the co-bloggers revisiting a work of Mormon narrative art that he or she has consumed, reviewed or commented upon in the past and saying something about that experience. Or it involves one of us picking up a work that’s new to us, but which we have read/heard about and developed certain attitudes about. Because of the nature of this feature, it will usually contain spoilers. Read on at your own risk.

I’ve been thinking about Todd Robert Petersen’s novella “Family History” (from his short story collecton Long After Dark) for the past couple of weeks. Part of the reason is that his novel Rift was recently published, but it’s also because I wanted to kick of Weekend (Re)Visitor with something that I could read in a day, but wasn’t a short story.  There’s also that I didn’t write much about it when I reviewed the collection back in 2007.

Here’s my one sentence assessment after the re-read: it’s more audacious, worse speculative fiction, and both more complicated and close to home literature than I had remembered. It also remains, as far as I know, the first and most direct Mormon fiction response to the events of Sept. 11. And I like it very much for all of those qualities while at the same time I’m not sure how well I could defend it strictly on the grounds of modern American literary criticism. It is a wonderful Mormon hybrid that would be much less of interest to non-Mormon readers than the stories in the collection (all of which would not seem out of place in a literary journal — and indeed some of them were printed in literary journals, although mainly in Mormon ones).

“Family History” is technically slight alternate history (in its first two sections, which take place in this decade) combined with semi-post-apocalyptic speculative fiction. Post 9-11, a smooth-talking salesman and the daughter of an action movie director hook up in Vegas. What is meant to be a weekend fling turns in to something more. They marry. A few years later a terrorist scenario taken straight from one of the director’s action movies occurs. He disappears. The couple tracks him down. The wife is pregnant. The director meets a pair of Mormon missionaries. These first two sections are told in the voices of the parents recording these two major moments in their lives and movements in their relationship. Fast forward many years. The director, his wife and their daughter and son-in-law have joined the church. The son of this couple is now a grown man. His father is dying of cancer and very concerned that this story (about Vegas and the aftermath) could still surface. He has struggled his whole life to write his life history, destroying it several times because he is ashamed of his pre-Mormon life and obsessed with repentence and memory.

It’s a good story even though the speculative, the future elements are slight and rather au courant (peak oil makes an appearance, Elder Bednar is president of the LDS Church, etc.). Although I also think that the speculative elements performance a needed service — it allows Petersen to make his points about family history (and by extension fiction) without getting tangled up in history and realism, and in doing so make a nod at speculative fiction, that other major stream in Mormon fiction that allows speculation and exploration of Mormon thought and worldview

In fact, it’s a fascinating apologetic for faithful realism (see paragraph 44). As the son’s mother tells him near the end (and after she herself has died in a terrorist attack in China where she had been serving a mission):

“I want you to put your father’s story into your project without any apologies and without any censoring. My story is a mess, but after you fix the spelling and everything, please try to leave it like you found it. Our story — your father’s and mine — will mean nothing if you don’t tell it all. Please don’t hide our repentence from your children. I don’t know how long you will have to live on earth before the Savior coms, but it might be a while, and it will be a very dangerous time for people’s souls. I want my family, at least, to know that it is possible to make it through this world. These stories don’t get told in our church, David. We want stories of success without having to hear about the struggles of sin.” (163)

Yes, it’s a self-serving apologia for Petersen — for his approach to fiction. But “Family History” is also one of the best examples of the sweet spot that can be created for Mormon readers of Mormon middle fiction and a model for writers seeking to work that same vein.

Such are my thoughts on this re-visiting.

2 thoughts on “Weekend (Re)Visitor: “Family History””

  1. Thanks for bringing attention back to Todd Petersen’s novella and to his short story collection. I reviewed Long Before Dark for Sunstone in 2007 and still think about the characters–especially the parents in the 3rd section. Particularly poignant is the father’s lament that the church doesn’t help his end of life situation, “They just tell us to make sure we’ve got our food storage and to give away the Book of Mormon. I want to know what’s going to happen. I don’t want to be so goddamn afraid of what’s next.”
    Although speculative, Family History is one of the most realistic pieces of Mormon fiction I’ve read.

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