Before we get started, we have a bit of business this morning.
The back of my review copy reads “DO NOT QUOTE FROM THIS GALLEY” (allcaps in original) which I will be disregarding. How do you expect me to do a decent review if I can’t quote? That said, I will correct obvious errors (which I will mark [molaq]) and mark seeming errors I don’t know how to correct with [sic] (but without its usual snide connotation). I will note the location of these quotations with chapter numbers since my page numbers are unlikely to match anything you pick up.
These rules will apply to all posts in this series going forward.
Now, on with the show.Last week, I discussed my issues with the opening pages of The Bishop’s Wife, specifically with its Mormonworld-building. Those issues aside, I was pretty much delighted with this novel. Some of its problems (such as an example of Absurdly Righteous speech) were ultimately mitigated (for that early example, this happened immediately through proper use of emotion and clever rollout of parallelism, and later by revealing the character to be a villain). And some of the “problems” that aren’t mitigated aren’t problems at all. Harrison has an adept sense of the ambiguous. For instance, certain troubles within her family (eg, will her son go on a mission?) are left unresolved. On the one hand, as this is an intended series (she’s already under contract for the second book), some things need to be left unresolved for crass commercial reasons. But more importantly, life doesn’t end in a series of tidy resolutions with a nice pause before a new package of problems arrives on the doorstep. This is a novel that is comfortable with leaving us uncomfortable. Or, rather, that manages to leave us comfortable in our discomfort.
Which is to say that I found The Bishop’s Wife an honest book. Sure, with two murders etc it presents a heightened contrast between good and evil, but even the evil is ultimately mundane—in the sense of of this earth—and we all know what it’s like when something unexpected happens in life:
We just keep going.
In that sense, the choice of protagonist makes a lot of sense. As the first page reads,
Mormon bishop’s wife isn’t an official calling. . . . there’s no ceremonial laying-on of hands or pronounced blessings from on high. But if the bishop is the father of the ward, the bishop’s wife is the mother, and that meant there were five hundred people who were under my care. (1)
Parents clean up messes, starting with diapers and leading to fender-benders. And that’s what Linda Wallheim does. She reaches out, comforts—when under stress, she cleans. She is the ubermother, matriarch to five hundred, even when she doubts her own capacity as a mother.
One of the most fascinating aspects of The Bishop’s Wife is its take on gender issues as filtered through Linda’s generally conservative leanings. By asserting her role as mother of the ward, she is assuming power many would argue she does not have—there has been no “ceremonial laying-on of hands” after all—but she chooses to act all the same. Largely with autonomy, though both her adventures in this novel are started either by someone visiting her husband or by her husband asking her to visit someone. But what she does following that instigating event is all Linda.
Of course, Linda administers with brownies, not consecrated oil. But breaking bread in communion is as Christlike a symbol there is, and Linda is able, through being gentle and mild (most of the time), to be with and understand people in ways perhaps her husband cannot.
However, with the exception of one strange scene, we don’t know much about what her husband can or cannot do. He meets members behind doors and can’t share full details with her.
A bishop’s role is to comfort, but also to judge; judgment is not part of Linda’s role. As one woman tells her, “‘That’s why you’re the bishop’s wife, isn’t it? You make us all feel welcome, no matter what our problems are'” (29).
But I’ll get into gender more in a later post.
Another important consideration in determining the success of The Bishop’s Wife is how naturalistically it represents this second family of hers: the ward.
As a whole, this is a wonderful accomplishment, rife with little details which seem unremarkable but tell us a lot about this particular group of people. For instance, this ward, like every ward has a handful of folks who will be the ones still cleaning up after an activity when the bulk of the ward “had” to leave. The name of those weekday Relief Society meetings hasn’t been Homemaking since 2000, but even women who’ve joined Relief Society long after that date refer to it as such in this ward. In other words, this is a ward like any other, if more conservative in vocabulary and demeanor. The fellow who brings all the warts of Church history to Sunday School has a visibly hard time in this ward, even though he’s covertly welcomed by the bishop and his wife and probably many other silent parties
Additionally, as becomes increasingly clear over the course of the novel, this ward has secrets.
The bishop’s role is to take on the burden of others’ secrets. His wife is ostensibly free of that role, but her own secrets are heavy enough—as are each of ours.
For a moment, I . . . thought of the shed as Tobias himself, a man who had not even shared his life story with his wife of thirty years. How many things had he left inside himself to canker, because he thought he would get to them later? How many inner wounds were still oozing blood and pus? Was he ashamed of the truth of who he was? Did he close the door on his own past secrets to keep them hidden from other people? And what would happen when God opened the door at his death? . . .
What did my own shed look like? I suppose we are all like Tobias, putting off things that we should take care of but which we are too tired or too ashamed to deal with. And someday, the end will come for all of us, and other people will root around in our things, finding out what we wish no one would ever know.
In The Bishop’s Wife, some terrible secrets are never resolved. Some terrible secrets are generated by evil within a family. Some terrible secrets persists due to the silence of the we rely on. But some terrible secrets motivate us to act! And some terrible secrets show us how to succor those in need of succor. And all secrets come packaged with the offer of being lifted through the efforts of shepherd or Shepherd
And ultimately, that’s what The Bishop’s Wife argues for: grace, redemption.
Consider the wonderfully complex character of Carrie which is developed through a series of mysteries and questions and ups and downs. Her life is ultimately retched. But she’s dead now, and as the bishop says at her funeral, “Christ’s atonement cover[s] all sins, even the sins that we think are the worst” (25).
So whatever you or I think of Carrie’s apparent decisions, she’s as covered as anyone.
And what do we know about Carrie’s apparent decisions, anyway? Would we want her rooting around our sheds?
Linda Wallheim would listen and then, if we wanted, offer to help clean.
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