I am 50 pages into a re-reading of Margaret Blair Young‘s second novel Salvador (Aspen Books, 1992). I first read it in the early part of this decade and captivated by her teeming prose, pseudo-elements of magic realism (more on that later, hopefully), and use of humor. It all rushed back with the first page.
Let me give you an example of the achingly beautiful prose:
“Salto Blanco” is a hundred-foot waterfall that cascades into steaming craters. You hike up a mountain, then descend a ravine that rivals the Grand Canyon. Half way down, you hear the crackle of the waterfall and see the craters’ steam rising as during creation. Closer, and you see “Blanco” foaming over the cliffs like milk; leaves and moss glistening under it; steam rising from the craters, mixing with its pray. You are descending into an inferno made lovely. Iridescent blue butterflies the size of a child’s hand are hovering everywhere. There are purple-veined green orchids, hibiscus, coconut palms. There are people inside the craters, like something out of Dante. But this is their bath, not their punishment. They know which pitcs scald, and they add cold well-water to the safest ones. They are washing themselves in perfectly warm sulphur water, jumping around happily like brown frogs.
The novel is about Julie, a recently divorced Mormon woman in her early twenties who travels with her (excommunicated, Vietnam vet) dad and (kooky, hippy-like) mom to visit her mom’s brother and her dad’s former mission companion in El Salvador. Uncle Johnny has married a local beauty queen and set up a farm and a bit of a commune to help out (and continue preaching the gospel) to the locals. Other than one early, horrific incident, I’m not yet to that part of the novel where things go seriously wrong and some serious stuff comes out. And to be honest, I don’t quite remember the particulars — just that it’s coming. And I’m thinking that this time I need to dig in deeper to what’s going on, with the language, the use of the materials, the Mormonism, the linkages to faithful realism.
I don’t think Aspen publishes literary fiction anymore. And Young would go on to publish just one more novel in the faithful realism mode — Heresies of Nature. Most of her writing time since the mid ’90s has gone to her work with Darius Grey (including the historical fiction series Standing on the Promises) and blogging and short work. All excellent work that Margaret has felt called to do. But so far my revisiting of Salvador has made me wish for more of the quirky, well-crafted, achingly beautfiul but also funny woman’s voice in faithful realism. It’s been a strange exercise in nostalgia, rediscovery and luxuriating in good writing so far. A flashback to when the field of Mormon literary fiction seemed to hold so much promise. I think we’re in a pretty good place at the moment. But rereading Salvador is a reminder that the trajectory hasn’t been quite what I (and perhaps others) thought it would be. The irony, of course, is that I’m talking about a time a decade after the novel was published. I wonder how those who were ensconced in the community in 1992 feel now.