Review of _Adventures of the Soul: The Best Creative Nonfiction from BYU Studies_

Title: Adventures of the Soul: The Best Creative Nonfiction from BYU Studies
Editor: Doris R. Dant
Publisher: BYU Press
Genre: Personal Essays Anthology
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: ix; 261
Binding: Trade Paperback
ISBN13: 978-0-8425-2739-2
Price: $14.95
Available from Deseret Book and other sources.

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

Note: I received a free review copy of this book from the editor.

A good personal essay is like an evening spent in front of a fireplace with a longtime friend. It’s not about drama and high emotion. Nor is it about polished literary style — though there is a style and a demanding literary craft to writing such essays well. The essence of that craft lies in the achievement of a clear, intimate, authentic voice, as if the author were indeed a close and trusted friend. The satisfaction we as readers take from the experience springs in large measure from that sense of connection.

The other key to a good personal essay is the quiet insights it provides into ordinary life. Personal essays are the genre of the quotidian, focused into insight and clarity (there’s that word again) through the lens of an author’s mental reflection and then offered up for the reader’s recognition and acknowledgment. The underlying ethos of every personal essay is our essential similarity as human beings. As Jane D. Brady (author of one of the essays published in this collection) puts it: “There’s not a chasm between normal, functioning human beings and the bums on the street with no job and no life. There’s one hair’s breadth. Disaster is one step off the sidewalk. It is one migraine away” (p. 198). Personal essays persuade us of this truth (just as applicable to miracles as disasters) through a combination of narrated occurrence and quiet observation. We ponder the writer’s insights, resonate with the writer’s experiences, and feel that we know ourselves better as a result.

Adventures of the Soul: The Best Creative Nonfiction from BYU Studies makes accessible 25 high-quality contributions to this genre, well suited to the tastes of orthodox Mormons who enjoy thoughtful reflection on what it means to be Mormon and what it means to be human. The essays — ranging from memories of World War II among the Latter-day Saints in an Australian branch to insights interwoven with recuperation from back surgery — are organized into the 4 categories of International Vistas, Family Views, Gospel Reflections, and Introspection. Truthfully, though, all of the essays strike me as being in some sense about family, self, and gospel, each set in its own specific geographical, cultural, and temporal frame.

Personal essays in venues such as Dialogue and Sunstone often explore what it’s like to be in the boundary areas of Mormon experience. The essays in Adventures of the Soul, in contrast, stay away from the edges but drill down deep into what it means to be a thoughtful mainstream Mormon in a range of life circumstances. There’s no controversy, but plenty of fodder for reflection and sharing.

The presentation of these essays matches the quality of their content. The book is beautifully composed and typeset, featuring grayscale photographs of waterfalls that harmonize with the thoughtful and reflective tone of the content. Overall, it’s an ideal gift for the thoughtful, believing Mormon on your Christmas, birthday, or Mother’s/Father’s Day list who may not care for fiction but who likes to read and think about human experience.

I do have a few minor quibbles. The Introduction (by editor Doris Dant) provides thoughtful teasers about the specific essays included in the volume and how they fit within the myriad potentialities of the personal essay form. However, it doesn’t supply any information about how essays for this particular “best of” anthology were selected — and from how large a pool. I couldn’t help but notice that only two of the personal essays dated from prior to Volume 35 (published in 1995-96). Does this reflect a change in frequency of publication of personal essays in BYU Studies starting about 15 years ago, or an editorial process that found more recent essays to be of higher quality?

It would also be interesting to know how many personal essays BYU Studies publishes in a typical year, and who is eligible to submit them. Members of the BYU community only? Alumni? Anyone? What types of essays are they looking for? This kind of information is likely to be of interest to many of those who might read the anthology.

An editorial point that annoyed me in reading the essays was the lack of any headnote or footnote giving the date of original publication: information that would have help create a proper mental context for my reading. Irritatingly, the About the Authors entries at the end of the book included volume and issue number for the original publication, but not dates.

These complaints, however, are minor compared to the many strengths and pleasures offered by this volume. My only real regret is that due to the fragmented nature of the Mormon market, it’s likely that many people who would enjoy this book will never have the opportunity to read it.

6 thoughts on “Review of _Adventures of the Soul: The Best Creative Nonfiction from BYU Studies_”

  1. Prior to volume 35, there are only twenty-eight essays listed in the index. Starting about when Doris became managing editor, BYU Studies began publishing personal essays more regularly. We have tried to have an essay in nearly every issue (the main exceptions being themed issues or issues that were also published as books), and some issues have more than one.

    Since about 1996, BYU Studies has had a personal essay contest ( From those rules: “The contest is open to BYU graduates and/or regular subscribers to BYU Studies.” “As a general matter, personal essays published in BYU Studies are chosen from contest entries.”

  2. I’m curious about what you mean by this, Jonathan: “but drill down deep into what it means to be a thoughtful mainstream Mormon in a range of life circumstances”

    Could you give one specific example? This is a great review but it’s so top-level that I feel like I don’t have a good idea of what any of the essays are actually about.

  3. Good question, William. I don’t know that I can really do justice to the “drilling down deep” part, but here are some of life circumstances addressed in specific essays:
    – A black man shows up in a Cape Town ward, pre-1978. Reflections and memories from a woman who was a young girl in that ward about their reactions to him, and subsequent feelings of grace associated with him passing the sacrament as a deacon after the 1978 revelation. (“Brother Wiseman” by Tessa Meyer Santiago)
    – A Maori grandfather stealing the body of his uncle Toby to be buried on Great Barrier Island (where he had lived most of his life), rather than in Auckland (where he died and where his daughter wanted him to be buried). Not much that’s specifically LDS, although there is a mention of “the bishop who was to have presided over the funeral in Auckland.” (“Taking Uncle Toby Home” by Rochelle A. Fankhauser)
    – The lasting impact of a non-biological father, connected to the idea of being “adopted” by God (even though the father in question was dismayed at his daughter joining the Church) (“We Who Owe Everything to a Name,” Linda Mackey Wilson)
    – Living with a wife’s liver disease and subsequent transplant (“‘Miles to Go before I Sleep'” by Brett Walker)
    – Dealing with a daughter’s tanrums and parent-child anger in general. (“Kindling” by Melody Warnick)
    – “Liberating Form” by Marden J. Clark, a seminal piece of Mormon literary criticism as well as an insightful take on how the form of the gospel liberates us
    – A child’s discovery of the internal world of thoughts. (“Self-Discovery” by Marilyn M. Nelson Neilson)

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