One of the great challenges with writing a Mormon book for a national audience is deciding how much to explain. And it’s something I, for some reason, have particularly strong feelings regarding how it should be done. So let’s talk about Mette Ivie Harrison’s worldbuilding* in The Bishop’s Wife.
In the first forty or sixty or so pages, the titular narrator, Linda Wallheim, just spends too much darn time explaining the Mormon world of Draper, Utah. And it’s not just the quantity but the nature of the explanation that grates on me. For instance:
The church taught that everyone who was in the celestial kingdom had to be in a marriage—marriage was the highest law of the gospel—but that didn’t mean she had to be married to Tobias. In the old days, people would say worthy single women were lucky because they’d be married to Joseph Smith or Brigham Young in the afterlife. But people didn’t say that much anymore since polygamy had been carefully scripted out of the mainstream Mormon church.
This is pretty great because it throws a lot of my complaints into a single paragraph.
“The church taught me” and variations on it seems to be a deliberate separation of Linda from the Church when is not representative of her relationship therewith. Or take “everyone who was in the celestial kingdom had to be in a marriage” which is oversimplified to the point of error. Or “the old days” by which I think she means a slim number of decades long before anyone walking on the planet today was alive, but sounds almost like she heard it growing up. Or the word “lucky” which I’ve never heard in this context and seems to use old stereotypes as a shortcut. Although of course the stereotypes are then explicitly battled in that last sentence. It is, ultimately, a bit awkward. And this is just one example from these early pages.
I think the reason all this explanation bugs me is not only that Linda Wallheim wouldn’t remind herself of what to her are obvious details, but the net result is a sense that she’s trying to talk herself into this whole Mormon thing. Once she stops overexplaining and just lives her life, her reality as a faithful Latter-day Saints becomes more evident. Her questions and doubts and worries don’t disappear, but they’re woven into the fabric instead of pilling into clumps of exposition that smell like discontent.
Generally though, after these opening dozens of pages, Harrison pulls back and lets the worldbuilding occur more naturally and without unnecessary explanations. I found, for instance, Linda’s introductions to temple garments and the priesthood ban to be wonderfully organic, understated, sufficient, and, in the case of garments and temple clothing, even lovely.
Some choices never stopped irritating (me being as easily annoyed as I am), such as Linda, when calling on an adjective, referring to the Church as the Mormon Church rather than the LDS Church. It seems a little off. But maybe it’s not. The Church is a big place and not everyone’s experience is not mine. Maybe in Draper, in their heads, Mormon ladies think of themselves as member of the Mormon church. Who am I to judge?
In fact, I had an epiphany about a hundred and fifty pages in that made me much more forgiving.
What Harrison is describing is Utah and the Church in Utah. As Linda says, “sometimes it seemed like Mormons outside of Utah were part of an entirely different church.” Right back atcha, sister.
I’ve been to Draper—most often to visit my now deceased aunt and uncle whose property was once the edge of town and is now the middle—but I’ve never lived there. Other than the first couple months of my life, my entire Utah experience was spent within a mile of BYU. And if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that college towns are . . . different. So Draper may well be a world alien to me as well.
Even so, I cannot read this book as an outsider. And so if the starred review in Publisher’s Weekly calls Harrison’s Draper a “world most will find as unfamiliar as a foreign country,” a place she “easily transports readers into,” what do I know, anyway?
Note: Although I might not be popping this disclaimer on all my planned posts for this novel—because disclaimers are ugly and I am forgetful—my copy was sent me by the publisher for review. Also, it says right on the back that I should not quote this unproofed galley. But forget that. How can I review without quotations? That said, I’m leaving off page numbers because they won’t match yours, and I’m developing an ambiguous relationship with typos as to what I do with them (none in this post). Just know that what you see here may not match perfectly what you pick up at your local store on December 30. Also, I just realized I forgot to keep track of things that will upset Jennie Hansen. Sorry, Jennie!
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