A Mormon reference in Karen Joy Fowler’s short story collection

I’ve been reading What I Didn’t See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler. I’m enjoying it very much — Fowler infuses the literary with the weird in a way that speaks to my particular tastes and obsessions. I plan on writing about it more on my author blog, but I also found a Mormon reference to document here at AMV. It’s found in the story “Familiar Birds”:

“The Mormons used to make tea from this,” Daisy said. She was pointing to a particularly leggy, stickery plant. “They picked the leaves and dried them and then put them in boiling water. They thought this tea stopped pregnancies. Any woman found with the dried leaves was excommunicated. Or thrown into prison.” (94)

Now Daisy is likely unreliable when she talks about nature. The story is about Clara, a young woman who makes an extended visit with Daisy and her parents every summer (so her parents don’t have to pay for child care). Daisy likes to menace Clara with rural knowledge. So all the details could be completely made up. I wonder, though, how Fowler came up with the anecdote, especially since it correctly uses the word “excommunication” which suggests some familiarity with Mormonism.

As far as I know Mormon tea is the same thing as what people in Kanab (the town in southern Utah where I spent my childhood) called Brigham tea. As I recall, Brigham tea was made with stems — not leaves. In fact, Ephedra (which is what Brigham tea is made from) doesn’t have leaves. It is leggy, though. I don’t know about stickery, though. It’s pointy at the top, but I don’t really associate that with stickery.

I’ve tasted Mormon tea once when I was a kid. It’s not very good.

11 thoughts on “A Mormon reference in Karen Joy Fowler’s short story collection”

  1. .

    My expertise is based entirely on having read The Giant Joshua once, but I don’t think anyone imagined Mormon tea prevented pregnancy. So maybe this is supposed to be a different plant altogether?

    Or, more likely, the character is just making crap up. I know mine do.

  2. Clara, the narrator of the story, definitely thinks Daisy is making crap up. But in order for characters to make crap up, the author needs to have materials at hand to make crap up out of.

  3. Why would the use of “excommunication” suggest familiarity with Mormonism? We aren’t the only religion excommunication happens in. On the other hand, she was a guest at LTUE in 1988.

  4. When I was reading for my exams, I kept track of all the Mormon references I came across. I was surprised by how many writers brought Mormons and Mormonism into their fiction.

  5. I’ve read three of Fowler’s books: Sarah Canary and The Sweetheart Season (loved); and The Jane Austen Book Club (hated). I’m up to try her short stories.

    I heard her speak at Readercon years ago–I would think that she would be at LTUE merely as part of the con circuit.

  6. Back in 1988, I don’t think LTUE was part of the “con circuit.” It was only the sixth symposium, and we were happy if we got 400 attendees.

    Sorry, not really trying to hijack the thread. I’m still curious why her using “excommunication” “suggests some familiarity with Mormonism.”

  7. Why wouldn’t it? Notice I didn’t write “expert familiarity” or “personal familiarity”.

    It seems to me that in order to produce the section above, you’d need to know that:

    1. There exists something called Mormon tea
    2. It grows in the western U.S.
    3. It gets its’ name from a religious group called Mormons
    4. Mormons excommunicate members who do things that are against their rules

    There is a lot of other awareness/research that could come into play to arrive at the passage I quote (which again, comes from an unreliable narrator and I quoted it because I found it interesting — not because I’m angry about it), but I don’t see how you could arrive at it without those basics.

    Are you saying, Marny, that someone could know that Mormon tea exists, that it’s named after Mormons, not know that they excommunicate members who break their rules, but still end up using that term because other religious groups excommunicate members who break rules?

    I suppose that’s possible.

  8. Karen Joy Fowler was an invited guest at LTUE. I think Charlene Harmon was a primary liaison with her.

    William, the bit you quoted doesn’t indicate that Fowler knew Mormon tea exists (or that this plant was called Mormon tea), but only that Mormons made a tea from it. Not the same thing, I don’t think. Early settlers in every area (not just Mormons) made teas (tisanes) from many different plants.

    Certainly there are plants that can help prevent pregnancy. I remember reading in one of my old herb books that dried pennyroyal was illegal to sell at one time, because it was an emmenagogue, i.e., a plant that promoted menstruation, and thus was used at times to induce abortions.

  9. William, I thought you meant that use of excommunication by itself was reason to claim awareness, not that the entire set of details together suggest familiarity. My bad.

  10. Jonathan:

    So it’s possible that the plant being refereed to is not Ephedra aka Mormon tea? You are right. It can definitely be read that way. I’d find it very weird if that was the case, though. And be even more puzzled how the anecdote came to be used.


    No not at all. I can see how my original phrasing would confuse the matter.

  11. .

    I didn’t think it was necessarily Mormon tea mentioned in the passage since, as best I know, no one considers that an abortive drug. But other plants are and any plant can be made into a tea.

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