Although I remembered most of the plot of Salvador (Amazon), re-reading it five or six years after my initial encounter with it was still an experience of surprise and intensity. And oddly, I think it was an even more intense experience because since I already knew, sorta recalled the basic narrative and thematic arc for the main character Julie, my mind was freed up to focus on everything else, and it turns out that there is a lot going on.
In short, Salvador became a more important novel to me through the re-read.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first, though: it is not a work of magical realism. Nobody makes hard claims for that, but the term is still sometimes invoked in relation to the novel. It’s easy to see why — it takes place in El Salvador and there’s a certain lushness and vividness and poetics to the imagery — swarms of butterflies, sparkling fireflies, the cry of a jaguar in the night, the smell of gardenias, or the impression that the fruits on the mango tree are decapitated heads. But any values or magic assigned to the nature imagery are provided by Julie. She experiences El Salvador as magical (until everything goes to hell). Of course, the imagery is very important to the story. It feeds in to Julie’s desire to find a sort of Zion, and find it in her Uncle Johnny’s project to create a commune, a branch, a Zarahemla for the natives. And even when everything gets dashed down, part of what saves her is that even when illusions crumble, the rich reality of the land and of its people remains.
But about that project: Salvador is, as far as I am aware, the first great novel about RMs. In fact, as far as I know, it’s the only one that accomplishes quite the pointed drama that it does. Yes, the story is about Julie coming to terms with her divorce and with her mom and her faith and how her mom and her faith led her to think that she could save a guy by marrying him and what it means now that she realizes that she couldn’t save him. All that internal working through of things happens, though, amidst a drama, a conflict that centers on three returned missionaries who return — Julie’s Uncle Johnny, who goes back to El Salvador, marries a local girl and attempts to build his Zarahemla; Julie’s father, now a Vietnam vet and lapsed Mormon who accompanies Julie and her mom to El Salvador to visit Johnny and grudgingly gets pulled in to his work; and David Piggott, the ex -compadre of Johnny and Julie’s father who has also carved himself out a life in El Salvador, but has done so by working for an American company, by becoming District President of the LDS Church in El Salvador and who lives in a big house with a maids whom he has dress in blue livery. As missionaries, these there young men had big, idealistic plans to continue their work in El Salvador after their release and after finishing college. Two of them actually do it, but choose different paths. The third goes of to Vietnam and loses his faith. As the novel progresses, it’s clear that the three men are still struggling against each other, struggling to justify the turns they took and the struggle centers on Julie, who is going to draw her in or warn her off, and on Marta, Johnny’s wife, who is pregnant, whose strength is fading, whose life so far has been filled with miscarriages. Salvador is about priesthood and patriarchy and love and unrighteous dominion and selling out and going apostate and trying to recapture or run away from the intensity of the call to serve.
Of course, the novel is also very much about Julie and Marta and Julie’s mother, and for all the shocking revelations and power struggles, it is the experience of motherhood and the female body and female relationships that very much prevails. In fact, part of what makes Salvador such a fascinating, well-written novel is that there is a fullness of female and male experience here. I can’t think of a more balanced, yet bountiful exploration of some of the key issues of the LDS gendered experience.
I haven’t even gotten to Shakespeare, and the native Salvadorans, and the politics, but I’ve gone on long enough so I’ll just mention one more thing: Salvador also contains a fascinating moment related to the Mormon yearning for Book of Mormon archeology. That it plays out in the context that it does, featuring the characters that it does, featuring the conflict in world views that it does, is quite, quite delicious.
I still have a couple of issues with the novel. For example, considering the thematic use a couple of the natives are put too, I would have liked to have seen more of their Mormonism. And I’m not sure I completely buy the irreal, half-native, fully caught up in the vision, Shakespeare-quoting cousin of Julie’s and some of his interactions with her.
But the experience of revisiting this novel was an intense one, a good one, and gave me a greater appreciation for it. It’s a major touchstone in the development of the Mormon novel, and I think it sometimes gets lost because of the way the second part of Margaret Young’s writing career has turned out (which features important, even crucial work, but not work that exactly builds upon what she does in Salvador). It deserves to be revisited. Often.