In recent years, as a higher percentage of my reading has become decidedly “Mormon,” I have read very little published by Deseret or Covenant. I’m ashamed of my reluctance. In part I’ve been hesitant because although I hear that quality at these houses has grown vastly over the past years, I also once heard wide acclaim for Baptists at Our Barbecue by Robert Farrell Smith. And hoo boy but was that an unfunny disaster. (Sadly, this was before I started blogging every book I read, so I can’t get more specific than that.)
But as recent discussions attest (eg), coming into a genre without knowing its rules can lead to expectations failing to be met and a disappointment which might not be fair to the work under consideration (consider the recent Deseret News review I discussed here).
Why is why the first of these three posts will be:
The Language and Conventions Apparent in The House at Rose Creek
To help me, I return to the Deseret News to read its review of this novel, which I will mark henceforth with italics.
Proctor understands how to write great LDS fiction. She refreshingly abstains from many typical clichÃ©s by not introducing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until more than a third of the way through the book.
I will admit I expected the Mormon stuff to be more up front in this novel, and its “late” appearance surprised me. However, it’s hard to imagine just when the conventional entry point for the Church is if one third through is considered remarkably late.
Instead of following the usual path, and introducing the gospel via the main character’s love interest, Proctor lets Kate experience her conversion through other ways.
Many of my notes on the novel actually, deal with this issue. I’m certainly familiar with the Charly trope of a sexually impure (but not that sexually impure) gentile girl finding a Mormon boy, the review makes it sound like this trope IS the genre. Which I’m skeptical of (the other Covenant-published book I’m reading now, for instance, does not follow this trend). But it may just be that the language used to distinguish different trends within “LDS Fiction” is simply not very precise.
Anyway, those notes I mentioned were about how Proctor’s arrangement of the chronologies of the romantic and conversional storylines seems designed to provide plausible deniability that either causes the other. But the real technique she uses to prove they are separate is that both the romance and the conversion individually affect the protagonist with immediacy and power before their connection is revealed thus suggesting that both are inevitable whether they share a connection or not. So yes, our protagonist (Kate) imprints both upon the Church and upon this guy Andrew, and the things that get in her way (especially the absurd non sequitur of Andrew’s former fiancee which feels quite tacked on—almost like her editor sent her a paint-by-numbers guide to fix a previous draft that lacked such a fiancee) slough off Kate with a minimum of concern. I mean—I believe Kate feels the weight of these concerns (momentarily), but there isn’t much room for me as reader to doubt the wedding/baptism finale.
The most frustrating part for me as someone not steeped in the genre traditions is that, in my opinion, the best storyline was neither the conversion nor the romance but Kate’s efforts to save her family’s home from a highway. Though Kate works hard (with Andrew) to make this come to pass, the final complications are solved by two other characters who sweep in to save the day.
I realized though that my aesthetic—my very cultural language—might simply be substantially different than Proctor’s after I finished the novel and read her author bio which in some ineffable way simply wasn’t anything I would ever write. So I’ll try to keep in mind our different starting points as we go forward. Let’s get the grumpy out of the way first.
Who Will Teach the Young?
This is Proctor’s first published novel (she’s eligible for the new-author Whitney) and so I feel it’s important to both laud her successes and offer suggestions for further growth. However, I commend to Proctor’s soul the words of Neil Gaiman: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” I will try to keep that in mind myself.
Really, most of my issues could be resolved with good editing. I had thought that Covenant was still providing quality editing—and maybe the generally pleasant slide of words across the page is evidence of this—but the continuity confusion and need for an adjectivicide make me wonder just what her editor’s job was. How will authors grow if editors are merely gatekeepers and not also teachers? But I’m making assumptions perhaps I shouldn’t make. Heck. It’s not like I’m so dang experienced or anything. Her next novel drops this summer. It might be awesome. I hope so.
Complexity and the Mormon Bugaboo
I’ve done some reading on Proctor’s blog and at different points she refers to The House at Rose Creek as both LDS Fiction and not really LDS Fiction per se. In other words, the same concern all LDS writers grapple with. from the larger literary discourse? Is there room for us? Will anyone read a Mormon book?
I’m not sure how her novel answers this question. To me, its requirement that Kate’s romances with both a man and a faith be consummated (more or less simultaneously) is a bit offputting. I like a bit more uncertainty, ambiguity in my fiction. And I know that happy endings are (sort of) a requirement of romance and I certainly don’t mind happy endings. For many fictions the destination is known—it’s the path we take to get there that matters. Consider Ms Austen.
Which is why I felt Kate’s family’s casual anti-Mormonism should have had some more teeth—or at least been dealt with more directly. Perhaps Andrew’s fiancee should have had more success against Kate’s defenses. Or maybe the falling in love / falling for Mormonism / falling for the Spirit of Elijah could have been more difficult for Kate—at the very least, it might have been hard to give up coffee, you know? Maybe her old boyfriend could’ve been less of a heel? Something!
But all that said—and believe me, I did a lot of yelling at this book while walking to school (and pausing in my journey to scribble in the margins)—I do see a writer working to engage with the complexity of the world around us. Sure, none of those complexities quite hit this time, but I’m hopeful that as she gains experience and confidence (and perhaps bolder editing) that Proctor will take more chances and write something surprising and challenging and, therefore, ultimately more powerful and meaningful in the future.
I think she can do it. If she can be a little less cautious—a little more willing to mourn with her characters that mourn (rather than plotting their next happy moment in which that mourning is all but forgotten)—then she can write something that is more than a pleasant read. I would love to see her try.
Whitney update: Because it has become traditional to blab about one’s votular thinking, I’ll say that of the three books I’ve read in the General category, “Love Letters” is still in the lead followed closely by “Mile 21” with “Rose Creek” bringing up the rear. Still a book and a half to read!