Earlier this summer, I helped start a book club among some of the more mature couples in our ward. (Yes, I’m aware that I don’t necessarily qualify. On more than one count. Don’t even go there.)
For our second meeting, I proposed three Mormon lit titles: In the Company of Angels, Dave Farland’s (aka Wolverton’s) historical novel about the Willie handcart company; Bound on Earth, by Angela Hallstrom; and The Tree House, by Doug Thayer. The consensus went to Farland’s novel. So that was the one we read and discussed.
Unfortunately, not everyone had finished the book by the time we met, and some of those who had planned to come weren’t able to do so. Still, I can report that the meeting was a success. While In the Company of Angels may not be to the taste of those who don’t like to confront unpleasant truths of Church history, it seemed to go over pretty well in our group.
Predictably, much of the discussion had to do with the thorny issue of just what sustaining one’s leaders means in circumstances when what they suggest is a bad idea. I rather think that any discussion of this incident in Church history more or less has to go to that question, if we’re going to talk about it honestly. In the Company of Angels seems to me quite well suited to facilitate such as discussion.
Prior to the discussion, I had contacted Dave with some questions about the book. Below are his answers, shared now by his permission with the discriminating readers of A Motley Vision.
Langford: On your website, you talked about positive reactions to In the Company of Angels from both Mormons and non-Mormons. Have there been some Mormons who didn’t like the book, and if so, why?
Farland: Yes, I had some Mormons who felt that I was bad-mouthing an apostle for telling exactly what happened. That certainly wasn’t my intent when I started researching the piece, and I tried to handle the problem as delicately as all.
Also, early on, I discovered that the babies died first because both the mothers and the milk cows went dry due to the arduous journey, and there are some people who feel that I shouldn’t have mentioned breasts or breastfeeding at all.
There have been some who call themselves historians who want to dispute the facts — all of the facts, even the ones that can be shown to be absolutely right. For example, on certain dates, we have the journals of Levi Savage and the camp journals that tell us what happens, but I’ve had a couple of people who just seem to remember things wrong, and they want to argue.
Then there are the non-Mormons who refuse to believe anything that was said by Mormons at all.
Langford: As best you can tell, have there been very many non-Mormon readers of the book? How do you think their reading experience differs from that of Mormon readers?
Farland: Quite a few. My mother was a non-Mormon, and she called me crying every day for several weeks, asking when I would publish the manuscript. I told her, “I’m not a publisher,” and for awhile I didn’t think that I would find one. When my mother died, my wife said, “Well, you know what that means. Your mother would want you to take part of your inheritance to publish the book.” So that is how it first got published. But I’ve heard from dozens of non-members who have told me how much they love the book.
I’m not sure that it is as “faith-promoting” for them as it is for members of the church, but all of them have talked about the beauty of the book, and have shared with me how it fits within their own spiritual beliefs.
Langford: As a reader, I find it easy to identify with Eliza Gadd and admire Baline Mortensen. Other characters, such as Captain Willie, are harder for me to identify with. Do you consider all of your main characters sympathetic?
Farland: Let me put it this way. I love people. Captain Willie had a really tough job, and he comes off as a bit gruff in the history journals, but his deeds in secret show him to be a real gem. I think that he drove the people in his group hard because he was genuinely afraid that they would get killed by the coming winter if they didn’t hurry across the plains.
So I think that most of the people are very sympathetic. We have good people all trying to do the right thing, and in some cases just disagreeing on what the right course of action is.
Langford: Certainly one of the key themes of In the Company of Angels is the variety of different responses along the spectrum of faith-versus-reason, even among believers. It seems to me that you are careful to depict some of these different attitudes and the problems they can cause without giving one right answer. How well does that reflect your own view of faith, and is that one of the things you were trying to do in this book?
Farland: As I began researching this, I was surprised at how different people viewed the situations here. I think that very often, there is more than one right answer, one right response.
For example, some people chose to stay back near Council Bluffs. They came across the plains later the next year, and that was a right answer. In some cases, they were too old, in too poor of health. Others came across, and one little girl said that she didn’t really remember getting cold more than once or twice, even though some of her friends died from the cold. So crossing was right for her.
As a missionary, I was in situations where I felt inspired to talk to a person, and my companion at the time would then say something like, “Why did you waste your time talking to that person?” For example, in one case, I spoke with a man from Colombia who couldn’t speak English very well at all, but I spoke enough Spanish so that I could understand what he was saying and get his contact information for the Spanish missionaries. My companion got so angry that he ripped up the paper that had the referral information on it, but I told him that I felt impressed to speak with the man, and that it was “my answer,” not his. (The gentleman joined the church a few weeks later, along with 17 other of his friends, and quickly became the bishop of the Spanish Ward.) I think that that’s the way things work. We each get our own answers, and we need to follow them.
Langford: You’re mostly known as a science fiction and fantasy writer. Are there other more explicitly Mormon stories that you want to tell someday?
Farland: I keep wanting to do some historical fiction. I have an ancestor who was kept as a slave back in the 1800s, and who eventually fought in the Civil War. I’ve thought about trying to wrap his life story into a narrative set in the early church. I’ve also wanted to write the histories of some of the early members who aren’t widely known. Heck, I’ll admit it: I’ve even been taking a long look at writing about the life of Joseph Smith — sort of my take on the incidents in the Work and the Glory series.