Mormon Sons and Mothers: A Review of Douglas Thayer’s Will Wonders Never Cease

Loyal readers of Douglas Thayer’s fiction will not be surprised–at least initially–by his latest novel, Will Wonders Never Cease: A Hopeful Novel for Mormon Mothers and Their Teenage Sons (Zarahemla Books, 2014). For the last half-century, Thayer has been writing stories about young Mormon men, still naïve in the faith, whose battles with wilderness and human nature leave them emotionally and physically scarred, yet also hopeful and spiritually more mature. His protagonists are not the guilt-drenched youths of Levi Peterson’s fiction, whose forbidden experiments with sin and sex leave them feeling acutely the classic division between body and spirit. Instead, they are sensitive, righteous young men who take beating after beating from a world where God observes more than he intervenes. Thayer’s protagonists are acquainted with death, cruelty, and injustice. If anything redeems them, makes them willing to hope, it is their awakening to grace and the strong influence of their mothers.

Of course, it is easy to overlook the influence of mothers in Thayer’s fiction. Thayer, like Cormac McCarthy or Ernest Hemingway, is not known for writing strong female characters–not because his work doesn’t have them, but because the testosterone level in his stories has a tendency to overwhelm the narrative to the point of muffling (though never silencing) female voices. This is certainly true in the three novels that precede Will Wonders Never CeaseSummer Fire (1983), The Conversion of Jeff Williams (2003), and The Tree House (2009)–each of which has a significant female character who occupies the role usually given to a sage old man in most storytelling traditions. These female characters are uniformly motherly and wise to the ways and wiles of the world. They are frank and intelligent, always ready with advice and counsel, and deeply caring. Moreover, so much of what they do is to compensate for the adult men in the novels, whose physical ailments, spiritually immaturity, and emotional stuntedness make them little more than cautionary tales for the young protagonists. Still, despite the overwhelming influence these female characters have, as well as the crucial role they play in each narrative, they never seem to take center stage in the reader’s mind.

To a certain extent, this remains true in Will Wonders Never Cease, although Thayer strives to remedy this by giving the novel a subtitle that bequeaths it first to Mormon mothers and then to their teenage sons, thus underscoring the importance of the mother figure in the work. While I initially found the subtitle cumbersome and odd, I came to appreciate it more as I read the novel and reflected more on the unsung role of Thayer’s female characters. Will Wonders Never Cease is standard Thayer material, after all, and the testosterone level remain as high as ever. Set in present-day Colorado, the novel is about Kyle Hooper, a fifteen-year-old Mormon boy who, learner’s permit in hand, drives his grandfather’s Suburban up a mountain to go skiing, only to get trapped in an avalanche on the way up. The majority of the novel recounts Kyle’s efforts to stay alive and dig himself out of the snow, yet intercut with this narrative are Kyle’s memories of his life as well as his hopes for the future. Lucille, his mother, figures prominently in these memories as the guiding influence in his life. Like Jeff’s mother in The Conversion of Jeff Williams, Lucille bears frequent, earnest testimony of the practical value of the gospel and wittily doles out candid advice to her children about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and sex. Kyle’s money-minded father Frank, on the other hand, is largely absent in Kyle’s memories because of his frequent business trips that take him away from home. Lucille, therefore, is the obvious head of the family, and Kyle’s love and concern for her motivates him to fight for his survival. Indeed, his fight becomes particularly poignant in light of the death of Trace, his older brother, a few years earlier. Trace’s death had almost crushed Lucille as well as put a strain on her relationship with Frank. Knowing this, Kyle remains persistent, despite the odds, so his mother will not have to lose another son.

This is nothing we haven’t seen in Thayer fiction before, yet because the novel’s subtitle is so specific about its target audience, we feel almost compelled to read the novel differently than its three predecessors. Will Wonders Never Cease is a typical Thayer coming-of-age story, yes, but it urges us to resist reading it as such. This is no small challenge, however, because, unlike Thayer’s other works, this new novel feels claustrophobic with its intense focus on the plight of the main character. Trapped in the Suburban, Kyle has very little to see and nowhere to go except to where his imagination takes him. Consequently, readers spend hardly any time away from Kyle, especially since his interactions with other characters, as played out in his memories, are generally vignette-length. Readers must work to dig their own way out of the snowpack of Kyle’s narrative voice–at least if they want a fresh experience with Thayer’s fiction. Will Wonders Never Cease is essentially a story about a mother’s love for her son, but unless you choose to read it that way, you likely miss that point.

And what if you do miss it? I think you’ll still find a novel worth reading, although not one that trumps any of Thayer’s earlier novels. With The Tree House, Thayer delivered his masterpiece and I doubt any follow-up novel will ever rival it. Thayer, after all, turned 85 this year and has perhaps already produced the best work of his career. Reading Will Wonder Never Cease, I also felt as if Thayer’s connection to contemporary life was fading. While Kyle and his friends are modern teens, they talk as if they belong in mid-century America. This did not seem to be case with Jeff Williams ten years ago, or Owen Williams thirty years ago, but the world has changed a lot since text messaging and Facebook revolutionized the way young people communicate with each other. For me, Thayer’s work feels truest when it is set in the 1940s or 50s, when Thayer himself was a young man. We think of these times as simpler and more innocent than today, and Thayer portrays them as such. Yet, the best of Thayer’s fiction–The Tree House, “Wolves,” “The Locker Room”–also reminds us that a vulnerability to pain and brutality was often price people paid for remaining long in innocence. Today, though, the world is a much more open book, and that kind of innocence is hard to portray convincingly in fiction about modern life.

Aspects of Will Wonders Never Cease also evoke allegorical texts like Pilgrim’s Progress. Kyle’s confinement in the avalanche and his fight for survival, for example, explore the relationship between free will and divine intervention and have clear gospel parallels. Indeed, Thayer emphasizes this by assigning his minor characters names that reflect their occupation or personality. The local sheriff is Sheriff Catchwell, the seminary teacher is Brother Glimmer, the family doctor is Dr. Wellman, the bishop is named Bishop Goodmer, the Stake President is President Smyles, and the local drug dealer is “this kid named Stoner.” Thayer also includes characters named Sylvie Sadly, Sill Synner, and Jere Wantin who are, respectively, sad, sinful, and wanton (or wantin’). For me, this element in the novel seems strained and a little distracting–as well as out of sync with the fervent commitment to realism that readers have come to expect from Thayer’s fiction. Fortunately, Thayer does not extend this practice of overt allegorical naming to the main characters, although Lucille certainly represents a beacon of light in Kyle’s life.

Despite these relatively minor issues, Will Wonders Never Cease is another worthy contribution from the pen of Douglas Thayer. And Kyle Hooper is a worthy protagonist–even if he doesn’t necessarily remind me of the young men I instruct every week in the teachers quorum. Like Thayer’s best characters, he is on the receiving end of a cosmic injustice and does his best to come to terms with it. Sarcastic and smart, he is a Mormon Holden Caulfield with a cleaner mouth and a better moral compass. He is also the closest thing Mormon literature has to a young Macgyver, although I would not say that is the novel’s chief selling point. Will Wonders Never Cease, rather, is an invitation to revisit Thayer’s work with new eyes, to see beyond the coming-of-age tropes and discern new patterns and formulas in the narratives. It may be true that if you’ve read one Thayer novel, you’ve read them all. But a novel like Will Wonders Never Cease will make you question whether you’ve been misreading Thayer’s work all along.

8 thoughts on “Mormon Sons and Mothers: A Review of Douglas Thayer’s Will Wonders Never Cease”

  1. .

    I’m most intrigued by the experimentalish aspects of the novel you describe. I have my copy, but I’ll admit I was a bit put off by the marketing. I do hope it helps the novel find a broader audience, however.

  2. I think that The Tree House really is Thayer’s best novel–as you point out, he struggles with depicting contemporary youth as contemporary youth (I really felt this in Jeff Williams), and The Tree House is set in the time period that Thayer is best at writing. That novel has some powerful insights about war, peace, and coming of age and is one of my favorite Mormon novels.

    I have to admit that the subtitle of this new book turns me off a bit–I have an aversion to books that are obviously trying to teach a moral message to a particular audience. Perhaps I will have to give it a chance after all

  3. I’d be interested to learn the actual reasons behind the subtitle since it is so uncharacteristic of “literary” Mormon fiction. It’s an interesting choice–but it could simply be marketing.

    When I talked to Douglas Thayer back in April, he told me about a book he is currently writing about a grown family man trying to navigate the troubled waters of contemporary Mormonism. If the book ever comes to press, which I hope it does, it will be interesting to see how Thayer portrays an adult Mormon man with a wife and family–something we haven’t seen in any of his longer works of fiction.

  4. And Wm–

    You should read The Tree House. The first thirty pages or so are kind of slow, but it picks up speed as the main character gets older.

    I recommend it.

  5. Great review, Scott. The subtitle is Thayer’s, and we didn’t push him much on it. We didn’t push back at all on the character names, although I personally didn’t care for them either. If there were anything real at stake here in terms of potential sales, either with or without the subtitle, perhaps we would have said more about it, but the truth is that either way, we’ll be happy to get 100 copies sold. Sad but true–unfortunately, it’s only getting harder.

    The subtitle would be good for the Deseret/Seagull crowd, and I think that’s what Thayer was hoping, but Zarahemla does not have direct access to those unwashed masses (or in this case, excessively washed masses), and I think Doug understands that too. Maybe the subtitle might help the book reach a handful of readers who would not otherwise have tried it, but as the comments above show, that is likely at the cost of losing some literary readers. I knew there would be comments about the subtitle, but eh, whatever.

    I’ve read the forthcoming novel you mention, and I liked it a lot, although it’s not exactly a thriller. It doesn’t top Tree House, but I liked it better than Wonders because I related to it more and it’s not so much of an attempted crowd pleaser. It’s a very internal, contemplative account from the POV of an older man than Thayer usually writes, and I found a lot to relate to in it, as a middle-aged Mormon myself. I think some readers will have trouble sticking with it, though, with so many other intense, hooky stories to grab our attention. Zarahemla will certainly publish it, if and when Thayer wishes. No marketing subtitle on it yet, that I’ve heard anything about. If there were one, it might be “A melancholy meditation for middle-aged Mormon men and those who struggle to understand them.”

    Thayer’s sales with Zarahemla, as of year-end 2013, including both print and eBook:
    Hooligan 2,214
    Tree House 739 (this is actually more than I remembered)
    Wasatch 159 (I’ll be pleasantly surprised if Wonders matches this)

  6. You guys are nuts! And I mean that in the nicest possible way. Even Doug doesn’t realize what he’s got. This is an incredible adventure. It’s Horatio Hornblower leading the Lydia into battle with the much-larger Natividad, manned by blood-thirsty rebels, and achieving victory! (“Beat to Quarters”, CS Forester). It’s Laurence of Arabia blowing up trains and harassing the Turks. It’s a story of survival, of finding strength within oneself, of overcoming impossible odds. It’s a white-knuckle thriller. It’s also a fun look at a very fictional 15 year old. I’ve bought 24 copies already and there are more to come.

    I admit, I’m not highbrow. I read Edgar Rice Boroughs and Popular Mechanics and USA Today. This is much more fun than John Carter of Mars or the latest drone or even President Obama talking about immigration reform.

    Yes, leave off the subtitle. Fix the names if you like. Add back the MacGyver-like bits that have been edited out (I read an earlier version.) If Tom Hanks can make a successful movie sitting on an island talking to a volleyball, imagine the movie this story could be!

    It’s a wonderful ADVENTURE!

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