Weekend (Re)Visitor: Salvador by Margaret Young

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.

11 thoughts on “Weekend (Re)Visitor: Salvador by Margaret Young”

  1. That passage you quoted sounds like Avatar.

    Is Aspen even still around at all?

    This makes me want to reread Salvador too. I first read it in about ’93, in Eugene England’s Mo lit class at BYU. I remember being quite impressed with it, though I don’t think I would have ranked it the highest of that semester’s offerings (I think I liked Backslider, Lost Boys, Joshua Tree, and then maybe Salvador).

    Do you mind if I update Zarahemla Books website to say we publish faithful realism? I like that term and think it fits what we do.

  2. Here’s the Mormon Literature Database entry on Aspen. Some great titles there. I believe that Aspen Books is the same as Aspen West, but they have retrenched to focus on self-help books and distribution.*

    In regards to faithful realism — that’s Eugene England’s term (see paragraph 22).

    * I was wrong. See Stan’s comment #10.

  3. Aspen was an interesting place around 1991-1996, when Curtis Taylor and Stan Zenk were editors, then owners. They made some money when Curtis co-wrote Betty Eadie’s “Embraced by the Light”. They published some of the most interesting Mormon lit around for a few years. After they left in 1996, in published a few minor pieces for a couple of years, nothing literary for years now.

  4. I haven’t read this one yet, but I’ve been wanting to for some time now. Your appraisal pushed me over the edge, Wm, and I bought a copy through Amazon (through AMV’s affiliate link, of course!) for twenty cents. I look forward to the read.

  5. You know, I liked this book but it wasn’t a wow-ing experience for me. I read it just a couple years ago and I think I had a hard time because I didn’t know what to make of the “magical realism.” But what really left me unsatisfied was the last third (ish) of the book. Once I had finally settled into the magical realism, Young really ripped the rug out from under me and (IMHO) didn’t address all the questions she raised. _Heresies of Nature_ blew my mind, though. And _Standing on the Promises_ is on my list of books to own.

  6. Thanks for making this comment, Laura. I haven’t yet reached the last third of the book. I seem to recall feeling somewhat unsatisfied as well, but I can’t be sure. Memory and feeling gets tricky.

    I’m glad you brought up the magic realism — I plan to address that in another post and pick up a series I began at the very beginning of AMV on Mormon literature and magic realism.

    And I really need to read Heresies of Nature. If I ever win any of the writing contests that come with money, I’m going to go on a serious Mormon fiction spending spree.

  7. Mormon fiction spending sprees are fun, but I got my copy through. . . Interlibrary Loan! The copy came all the way across the mountains 🙂 The copy of _Salvador_ came all the way across the ocean from BYU-Hawaii, which somehow made it all the more exciting! (I seem to get more popular fic titles from Hawaii, more lit fic from Utah, and nearly all my Zarahemla titles from Massachusetts.)

    I look forward to your post on magical realism. I just didn’t get it.

  8. I worked directly with Margaret Young in editing her engrossing Salvador for publication. More satisfying even than publishing her book, was the personal interaction with Margaret. She is the polished gem behind her prose.

    FYI: Aspen and Aspen West are not connected. My days at Aspen with Curtis Taylor and our excellent staff remain some of my most gratifying. I am humbled and happy that our work there still resonates.

  9. Thanks for dropping by, Stan. I have corrected my comment above.

    And I’m not surprised to hear that editing Salvador with Margaret was a great experience.

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