Marketing: Deseret Book’s book club

As part of its continued Oprahfication, Deseret Book has started a book club. I have long thought that considering how small the market is, LDS publishers and booksellers should team up to provide enticements to book clubs — discounts, reading questions, extended author’s bio, sneak peaks at upcoming titles, background material (drawn from the research the author did in writing the book), etc. The chance to sell 8-10 copies of one title is not one that should be passed up.

Deseret Book’s book clubs are geared towards women and organized online. Participants receive 30% discounts off of each month’s title, free tickets to DB-sponsored events, and a “Discovery Guide” with reading questions and suggestions on what to write about in your journal. In the grand Mormon tradition of Nuskin and Amway, wannabe book club leaders who are able to gather together a full quorum of participants (8-25) receive additional incentives.

So far the three titles selected for the book club are devotional or inspirational nonfiction works. That’s disappointing. I hope that works of fiction are also included in the program — although considering the image DB is projecting for this venture, I doubt that will happen.

The Discovery Guides read suspiciously like the questions at the end of each lesson of the current Priesthood/Relief Society manuals (and other correlated materials). Does that really appeal to DB’s potential participants? Don’t they (they not we — I’m not including myself in this because, well, look at the Web sites I’ve linked to above) get enough self-improvement discourse on Sundays?

Obviously not, considering that devotional and self-help titles sell well in the LDS market. And to be fair, the Discovery Guides don’t seem that much different from what you find with Oprah or any of the other self-help gurus. This seems to be a discourse that resonates with middle-aged, middle class American women.

One thing that DB’s system doesn’t do is allow for those LDS book groups who prefer to choose their own selections and (so far) for those who prefer to throw some fiction into the mix.

This opens up some room for the other LDS publishers, I think — especially Covenant (but also Cedar Fort and others). Covenant should totally team up with Seagull Book and Tape and provide incentives to book groups. They could have a monthly selection, but they should also have incentives and free supplementary materials for all of the titles that are likely to sell well and make those (and the discounts) available to book clubs who come through with a minimum (DB’s starting point of 8 seems reasonable) number of orders. And while much of this could be online or e-mailed, it wouldn’t cost that much to offer print materials through bricks-and-mortar stores as well — i.e. individual bookstores could have special online access to materials and print them out for book club members.

ALSO: One more incentive that I’d offer to LDS book clubs — special notification of and the ability to submit questions for an online chat with the author.

Folk: Untitled Kane County song

The following untitled song appears in the 1960 edition of History of Kane County. It is listed as being “composed by ‘Roughnecks’ of former days.”

A — is for Nate Adams, who lived by the store,
B — is for Brig Riggs, who rode the range o’er.
C — is for John Cram as long as a rope,
D — is for Joe Dobson, the bow-legged mope,
The bow-legged mope, the bow-legged mope.

E — is for Elisha Averett, who the rock did lay,
F — is for Pap Ford who the fiddle did play.
G — is for George Potter who lay down the law,
H — is for Joe Hamblin, who had the big jaw,
Who had the big jaw, who had the big jaw.

I — is for Ike Brown, who lost his left eye,
J — is for Joel Johnson, who stole the mince pie,
K — is for Kitchen, who was full all the time,
L — is for Jim Little, who named him the swine.

M — is for Sie Magnum, who had wild oats to sow,
N — is for George Nagle, who neglected to go,
O — is Oliphant, a postmaster true,
P — is a ward teacher, by the name of Ed Pugh,
By the name of Ed Pugh, by the name of Ed Pugh.

Q — is for Quincy Adams, who walked on all fours,
R — is for John Rider, who fell through the floor,
S — is for Sam Smith, who was reckless and rife,
Who scared Fred Lundquist within an inch of his life.
T — is for Tom Turley, a bad man with a knife,
And he left twixt two days to save his bum life,
To save his bum life, to save his bum life.

U — is for Udell, a very good man,
Who taught Jim Little the 27th psalm

2nd verse.

V — is the vineyard we all love so well,
But when Nape appeared, we all went pell-mell.
W — is Dan Washburn, who quells all the noise.
X — is the exit of all us bad boys.
Y — is Dag Young, who in his youth went astray.
Z — is for Zadok who learned us to pray. (p. 260-61. History of Kane County. Compiled and edited by Elsie Chamberlain Carroll. Kane County Daughters of the Utah Pioneers: 1960, Salt Lake City).

NOTE: I have preserved the original punctuation.

News: Deseret News reports on Mormon fiction

As a fellow pr professional, I give Covenant’s marketing team major props for this article on the increasing quality and quantity of Mormon fiction that appears in today’s Deseret News. I don’t know if Covenant’s people pitched the story idea or not, but I’d say that Covenant beats out Deseret Book in the article in terms of creating mindshare and a favorable impression.

The relevant section:

“In recent years, LDS fiction has increased in both quantity and quality, said Robby Nichols, vice president of marketing for Covenant Communications. ‘Ten or 15 years ago, you saw very few LDS novels. It is now a strong segment of the market.’

“Consider, for example, that in 2003, just over half of all the new books Covenant published were works of fiction. Even more telling, perhaps, are the numbers of new authors being added to the shelves. ‘Interestingly, we introduced two new fiction writers in 2002, 10 new fiction writers in 2003, and we already have eight new fiction writers in the first four months of 2004,’ said Nichols. ‘The opportunity for a new fiction author to get published is greater now than ever before.’

“And not only are there more writers, he said, but ‘writers are getting better. The bar is much, much higher as to quality.’

“At Deseret Book, another major player in the fiction market, the story is much the same. ‘I was here in 1979 when Deseret Book published its first-ever fiction title,’ said editor Emily Watts, ‘It was considered a major breakthrough.’ That book was by Dean Hughes.

“A few months later, she said, Jack Weyland’s ‘Charly’ came along, ‘and that was so popular. It kicked a few doors open.’

“She’s not sure that the percentages of fiction books published by Deseret Book have changed all that much in recent years, ‘but we’re publishing so many more books, so we are publishing a lot more fiction.'” (Carma Wadley. “Novel ideas: LDS fiction gaining popularity among readers and publishers.” Deseret Morning News: June 25, 2004).

It’s subtle and may simply be the product of the writer’s quote selection, but the message I get from the story is that Covenant is a more happening, vibrant place when it comes to LDS fiction.

Now, I don’t know if that’s true or not. Since both Covenant and Deseret Book focus mainly on genre fiction, I haven’t really dug into any of their titles yet. I’m still working on the LDS literary fiction titles that I have decided are essential. Then I’ll get into some of the genre stuff.

Criticism: Post-colonial Mormon voices

I decided to track down the lecture by Richard Bushman that Nate Oman referenced in his June 1 post on Mormon Orientalism over at Times & Seasons because I wanted to see what Bushman had to say specifically about literature since the lecture was given at an AML annual meeting. The answer: not a whole lot. Which is to say — plenty for my over-reaching, prone-to-speculation mind.

The focus of Nate’s post was “the extent to which ‘critical distance’ is simply a manifestation of intellectual colonialization” (Nate Oman. “Mormon Orientalism.” Times & Seasons: June 1, 2004.). Thus the resulting comments tended to be about the problems of critical distance, reactions to/against Edward Said (Bushman borrows from his work on Orientalism to help formulate his theory of the colonization of Mormonism), and Michael Quinn. Good stuff.

Now whether or not you buy Bushman’s argument about the colonization of Mormonism — which he claims was effectuated by Mormon insiders, specifically “merchants” who were interested in opening up Mormonism to the outside, along with the work of outside writers — there’s no doubt that, no matter how you want to term it, Mormonism went through a process of integration into American culture and society and that integration included adoption of the discourses and mores of the broader society — business, academic, cultural and political.

ASIDE: Bushman notes: “Even today, outsider writers rely on enlightened insider informants to help them get a line on Mormonism” (20). Heh.

But Bushman isn’t concerned with the colonization, which he thinks was inevitable, as much as with where that leaves Mormons today. In fact, he admits that there are flaws in “colonization theory” and moderates Said’s position on clearing room for authentic indigenous voices (22). “[W]here are the authentic Mormon voices?” he asks (22).

Although he uses the question as an opportunity to make a case for paying closer attention to ‘home’ sources (General Conference talks, private journals, the old Relief Society Magazine, etc.), the answer, of course, is:

“We will never identify an authentic Mormon voice — if by authentic we mean a voice without taint of imperial culture. I think it is safe to say that none exists “¦ The language of broader American culture has percolated into every form of Mormon speech” (22). Bushman notes, for instance, that FARMS “the academic institution most dedicated to defense of the faith, rests its case on Enlightenment rationality” (22).

For Bushman, the solution (and one he personally employs), then, is for Mormons to “attain a degree of post-colonial sophistication” (23).

He ends the lecture with:

“Consciousness of colonization may grant us a little freedom from its influence. If we cannot destroy the authority of imperial culture, we can name it and examine it. We need not be naïve about the mechanics of power. Said said that he hoped ‘to illustrate the formidable structure of cultural domination and, specifically for formerly colonized peoples, [show] the dangers and temptations of employing this structure upon themselves or upon others’ (Said, 25). Similarly, I hope we will not be cowed by the structures of cultural domination, and will voice our Mormonism more freely, more imaginatively, and more faithfully” (23).

I have my doubts (as do others) as to what degree such consciousness is useful and how well authority can be named and examined — especially when it comes to academic discourses. But I do find Bushman’s words inspiring in terms of artistic creation.

I don’t know that Mormon writers can create something wholly unique and new — I’m not asking for a Mormon Shakespeare, Kafka or Joyce. I do think, however, that Mormon literature tends to either demonize or simply ignore the forces of American culture (home literature) or march in step with them, slotting Mormon narratives into the prevailing types and modes and allowable narratives of American literary fiction. What I don’t really see are Mormon narratives that take American culture head on, grapple with them from a faithful (or even backsliding but believing) Mormon perspective.

A big part of the problem, I think, is that Mormon authors have bought into the conventional wisdom of Mormonism as an imperial, dominant force of its own (not that this isn’t the case — but American culture’s focus on this aspect of Mormonism verges on the obsessive and ignores many of the other forces of American culture), and so are busy either portraying how the LDS Church and Mormon culture (and specifically the culture of the Intermountain West) enriches, complicates or ruins the lives of its members. This inward focus ignores, for the most part, what Bushman calls the “imperial forces” of American culture. What I’d like to see is more works that examine how Mormons buy into, subvert, criticize, accommodate, are tainted by, are enriched by and re-write/inscribe the broader culture.

We are a hybrid (post-colonial?) people, trying to live in the world but not be of it. As much as some of us might wish that that means we walk around in a bubble, unaffected by the cultural forces around us, that’s clearly not the case. A full withdrawal is not an option — it didn’t work the first time. The saints fled west. American cultural forces still caught up with them. I agree with Bushman. We can gain but little freedom from these forces. In the end that doesn’t matter — Christ’s culture will reign. But if we can raise our hybridized, post-colonial voices at this point in our history and at the very least subvert a little, mess with, use and transform pieces of American culture, then let’s do it.

SOURCES: 1. Richard Lyman Bushman. “The Colonization of the Mormon Mind.” Pages 14-23. Annual of the Association of Mormon Letters: 2000. Ed. Lavinia Fielding Anderson. The Association for Mormon Letters: Salt Lake City. 2. Edward Said. Orientalism. Random House. New York: 1994.

Review: LDS Review

“Your Entertainment. Your Standards.” is the tagline of the recently-launched (late April) group blog LDS Review. It’s an interesting discursive move on the part of the creators of the site. They are clearly targeting a specific audience — the orthodox, active LDS audience — and a specific market — products that show up on the shelves of LDS bookstores. They let us know that first by stating that the entertainment is “ours” (as opposed to “the worlds”), and then by telling us that the works they review are going to be selected and reviewed by LDS standards. This idea of Mormon-centric entertainment that conforms to certain standards seems to be one that motivates a large part of the LDS audience — judging by what works sell well and what stocking decisions Deseret Book and Seagull, the two largest booksellers, make.

In addition, I find it interesting that they’ve chosen to avoid the “Mormon” label and call the site “LDS Review” and use LDS as the primary identifying adjective in their reviews. I’ve noticed the same choice made in other places. Part of it is probably in response to the movement several years ago by the Church public relations people to use LDS as an identifier instead of Mormon. But I also think that the reason the practice has persisted is because it is, in part, a reactionary move in response to those who have broadened the term Mormon to include cultural or even disaffected LDS (i.e. not active and/or believing LDS).

Now I’m not saying that this type of calculation went into the naming of the site. Nor am I criticizing it. I merely am trying to show how the branding choices the sites creators made signal the demographic they are going for.

And for what it’s worth, here at A Motley Vision, I tend to use LDS when I’m talking about active, believing members, but my use of Mormon varies. Sometimes it is used in a big-tent sense; sometimes I use it even when I’m talking mainly about or to active LDS (recognizing, of course, that active LDS still encompasses a broad range of audiences not all of whom fit into the desiring LDS-oriented art with standards category).

LDS Review’s project is an ambitious one. Seven reviewers are going to review film, music and books that are oriented towards the Mormon market. There’s a need for this type of venture. The AML does great book and film reviews, but not music. Meridian Magazine has some reviews, but not many. If LDS Review can put together a track record of consistent updates and a substantial body of reviews, and they are able to garner traffic, I think that they can become an important voice in the LDS market.

One of the things that I like about their reviews is that while they are clearly focused on the orthodox LDS market, they aren’t afraid to criticize the works they review. There has been a tendency, in my opinion, to uncritically receive any work that appears in the market. As long as it fits in the “your entertainment, your standards” category, it gets rubberstamped as of good report for the Mormon-LDS audience.

One of the great things about their CD reviews is that in addition to offering a written assessment, the reviewers also give the works number grades in the categories of Production, Songwriting, Performance and Overall. To see what I mean, take a look Andrew’s review of Clay in His Hands by Jessie Clark.

I especially like the idea of a production category. Traditionally, one of the problems with some LDS products has been that they have very low production values. Anything that helps the Mormon audience become more picky about the production of LDS products is a very good thing. In fact, I’d like to see them add number grades and categories to the film and book reviews. Editing could be a category for both films and books. Cover art for DVD’s and books. Sound for films. Etc.

Although I would have liked to see them take a broader stance in relation to the Mormon market, I understand why LDS Review is doing what they do and hope they can sustain it. In fact, if I was Meridian Magazine [yes, Proctors, this means you], I would look at making LDS Review a content partner. As I mention above, Meridian’s weak point is its mediocre treatment of the world of LDS literature, music and film. Yes, they run some reviews and articles, but as has been pointed before [sorry, no source for this], Meridian’s book reviews are mainly Covenant authors reviewing books by other Covenant authors.

With more content and a stable of reviewers who, at least so far, seem to be in tune with the LDS audience — critical but faithful so-to-speak — Meridian Magazine could increase its appeal, especially, I think to younger readers. LDS Review still needs to prove it can put out a steady stream of reviews, but judging by the way the editorial face of the site has been put together, it’s on the right track.

Again, this is all said within the constraints of the project/ambitions the site’s creators have laid out. If I were to do a multi-authored, review-oriented blog, I would take a much different editorial approach.

Film: Napoleon Dynamite and the limitations of urban(e) critics

Most of the “Napoleon Dynamite” reviews I have read mentioned that the film doesn’t have a strong plot. So I wasn’t surprised when I saw the capsule headline for Carla Meyer’s San Francisco Chronicle review: “There’s no cohesive story.”

However, when I read the full review, I did find it interesting that Meyer accuses Jared and Jerusha Hess, the film’s writers, of trying to make an ’80s period piece a la John Hughes.

Her specific objections:

1. “The comic setups are rather geek-movie conventional for a picture that keeps trying to announce its differentness. ‘Napoleon’ is unique only if you gauge uniqueness by an inability to tell the era in which a film is set.”

2. “Napoleon’s Idaho high school classmates seem to be living in 2004, but they slow-dance to Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time.'”

3. “The filmmakers want to evoke the ‘Sixteen Candles’ era of geekdom without committing to a period movie or acknowledging what’s happened in the intervening years. Napoleon’s three-piece, 1970s thrift-store suit was unfashionable in 1984, but today it looks like something a San Francisco hipster might wear.” (Carla Meyer. “‘Napoleon’ falls too much in love with its own nerdiness.” San Francisco Chronicle: June 18, 2004.)

It would seem Meyer doesn’t know rural Idaho very well. Sure her reactions are valid (for her). And I’m sure they reflect the likely reactions of some of her readers. But with this review Meyer proves something that I’m sure Motley Vision readers may have already suspected — there are limitations to being an urban(e) critic.

Folk: My Three Nephites story

Writing about Neal Chandler’s “The Last Nephite” reminded me that I have a Three Nephites/John the Beloved story to tell. It’s a story that was told to me on my mission in Romania. I have changed the name of the person involved for reasons that will soon become obvious. The story goes like this:

During my second companionship, Elder Nichols [name not changed] and I began regularly visiting a family that consisted of Doina [this is the changed name], a mother in her mid-40s, and her three children, ages 10-18. They were a poor family, but always fed us very good food. We taught them some of the discussions and had several other visits where we presented gospel-related messages. The oldest son wasn’t interested — in fact, he became involved with the local Jehovah’s Witnesses and once told me that he saw a white dove fly out of my chest (i.e. a sign that I didn’t have the Holy Ghost with me). But Doina was as were her daughter and youngest son. They often came to church, although sometimes Doina wasn’t with the two children.

Doina was am interesting, passionate, flaky person. She liked to tell stories. My Romanian wasn’t great at the time (but adequate) and from what I could gather, her basic story was this:

She had been raised outside of Bucharest and had always been involved with non-Orthodox religious groups. She moved to Bucharest as a young woman and soon met and fell in love with a young man [according to here she was a great beauty at the time with hair so long and thick that on one occasion she went to a church function clothed only in the garment God gave her — her hair]. The rest is a little hazy, but despite their minority religious status, both she and her husband obtained jobs with Ceaucescu government and traveled abroad — especially her husband. In fact, Doina claimed to have worked in some secret biological lab (weapons or genetic engineering or something like that) run by Ceaucescu’s wife.

Her husband often worked abroad for long stretches of time. Sometimes sending back money — sometimes not. Doina become more involved with minority religious congregations (some of them legal, some of them not), although because of her personality she often came into conflict with members of the congregation and alienated herself from the community. At one point, she became a sort of underground Christian activist and was picked up by the Securitate (secret police) and interrogated and tortured. Because of that experience, she (I found out much later — after her daughter had been baptized and we had sister missionaries who could take over the Doina visits) became addicted to injections of painkillers (or some sort of injected drug). This addiction kept her from being baptized.

But despite all that had happened to her, Doina had a strong, one might say even fierce faith in God.

She shared the following story with Elder Nichols and me during a visit:

Doina reached a point where she had no money for food. She had lost her government job and with it her income. Her husband had been incognito for awhile. She had become estranged from her (latest) congregation. She didn’t know any of her neighbors very well, and besides that they were all barely scraping by themselves. And she had three young children to feed. The only option she had left was to boil the straw from her broom and see if she could draw some nourishment from the small undeveloped kernels of wheat attached to the straw. She was in deep despair and didn’t know what to do. She cried out to God. A few minutes (or perhaps hours) later there was a knock on the door. She opened it. A nicely-dressed (I think he may have even been wearing a white suit — at the very least he was in ‘church clothes’) older gentleman was there with several bags of groceries in his arms. He asked if he could come in. Doina, of course, said yes. He gave her the groceries and some money. Doina wanted him to stay and told him that she would prepare a meal for him. He declined, but (I believe) did ask for a glass of water. Then he left.

Elder Nichols and I stared at each other in amazement after hearing this story. After the visit, we excitedly discussed it. If I recall correctly, the dedicatory prayer that opened up Romania for mission work had said something about the Lord preparing the land to receive his gospel. To us this seemed like a very real example of that. And the story had a certain amount of credibility in our eyes because her was someone who didn’t grow up with Three Nephites stories telling us about an experience that echoed those stories.

Now, even then, we had some doubts about the account because we knew that Doina was prone to exaggeration. She is not the most credible witness. I also realize that this type of folk narrative featuring a heavenly visitor is not unique to Mormonism. For all I know, there could be a long tradition of such narratives among Romanian evangelical and protestant Christians [I think that with Orthodox folk narratives the details of such a visit would be quite different].

And while I can say that the story touched me deeply — and was deeply felt by Doina, the tears streaming off her face as she told it — because I am aware of the folk-quality of many of these narratives, I can’t say that I believe it is a factual account. However: knowing Doina and her family as I do. Knowing her faith and how she relates to God and how he seems to relate to her — he puts her through the wringer, but always somehow to provide the right things for her at the right moment. And believing as I do, the Book of Mormon account of the Three Nephites (and by extension what that tells us about John the Beloved), there’s a part of me that believes the account is true.

It’s a strange situation to be in. I believe that it is doctrinally possible. But I also am aware of the problem of relying on folk narratives and think that it’s best to take a skeptical approach to sensational Mormon narratives.

True or not, it is an interesting addition to the corpus of Three Nephites/John the Beloved folk narratives.

Criticism: Mormon magic realism, part III

Read: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

In part II, I discussed the magic realism of Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” noting that the supernatural element of story — the old man with wings — was a baffling presence that challenged the religious conventions of the community he appears in. Neal Chandler’s “The Third Nephite,” which appears in his loosely-connected collection Benediction, also features a supernatural old man that poses a problem for the realistic characters and world of the narrative.

In the story a middle-aged father comes into contact with a mysterious old man who asks for his help. The father decides to give him aid and ends up in a series of situations that culminates in the two being taken by LDS security men to visit a general authority who tries to council (and threaten somewhat) the old man into following Church protocol more closely. It would seem that this old man has been driving the Church bureaucracy crazy by running around doing charitable acts that are rather unorthodox and perhaps more importantly in doing so he subverts the wishes and boundaries of local authorities. Although Chandler leaves room for some doubt on the matter, it seems pretty clear that this old man is what the title of the story suggests — one of the Three Nephites, the three apostles who in 3 Nephi ask Christ that he allow them the same status that he gave to John the Beloved, namely, to not die, but instead be transformed into a state that would allow them to remain on earth until his Second Coming.

There is a rich body of Mormon folk narratives dealing with the Three Nephites. Chandler is clearly evoking these narratives. And by locating the story in a “realistic” seemingly historical-bound time and setting, he creates a narrative that seems to be in the magic realist mode — especially considering how well it parallels Garcia Marquez’s story.

There are some important differences between these two baffling old men, however, and herein lies, I think, part of the challenge for Mormon magic realism that draws upon religious-folk beliefs for its magical elements.

Both old men present challenges to orthodox doctrine, but in parallels Garcia Marquez the challenge is one of definition of being, whereas, in Chandler it is one of conduct. The Catholic authorities get caught up in an unresolved debate about the nature of this old man with wings — and the nature of his being is not solved for the reader either. With Chandler, the being of the old man seems rather clear. Although we don’t receive a 100 percent confirmation, I think most readers would agree that the old man is most definitely meant to be one of the Three Nephites. The problem is not what is he, but is he behaving appropriately?

I like Chandler’s story very much, but I think that it is weak as an example of magic realism because the magic realist element is used in the service of counter-discourse — or to put it in harsher terms — as a teaching tool. The old man with wings represents a puzzle; the old Nephite is used to show how Church hierarchy and bureaucracy can interfere with “pure” Christian acts (in fact, this is one of the main themes of Benediction).

The problem for many (orthodox — although I’m not sure I like the term applied to this situation) Mormon readers, I think, is that they just don’t think that one of the Three Nephites (the last one even?) would come into conflict with Church leaders. What’s more is that he doesn’t seem entirely recognizable when removed from the folk narratives associated with the Three Nephites. I think that this is especially true because even though his charitable are mentioned, they aren’t depicted. Perhaps if these had been dramatized the “magic realistic” feel of the character would have been heightened and made more believable.

And this problem illustrates a major challenge for Mormon magic realism, I think. Although Mormonism has a great foundation of folk narratives, it also has some clear doctrinal boundaries and lines of authority.

One solution for Mormon writers might be to follow Garci­a Marquez’s lead and introduce elements that are baffling for Mormon readers (i.e. not accounted for by doctrine).

Another is to not worry about the category so much and focus on how to powerfully portray those Mormon experiences that are not “supernatural” but are not explainable by modern science. Those things –healings, warnings, appearances, speaking in tongues and other manifestations of spiritual gifts — that are common and uncommon. I’m not sure how non-Mormon audiences will react to such narratives (although in part I, I assume that they will react negatively — if at all). And considering the discomfort much of the Mormon audience has with artistic depictions of sacred moments, perhaps the audience for these narratives is so small as to almost not be worth bothering with. And yet, this is an important part of the Mormon experience — this magic we see in the world, magic that is natural to us, unseen but true and living.

NEXT: I’m ready to move on to other subjects so it won’t be for awhile, but I intend to follow-up on Andrew Hall’s comments and take a look at magic realism in Margaret Young’s novel Salvador. I also will try and track down an essay by Eric A. Eliason that discusses magic realism in a story collection by Phyllis Barber.

Criticism: Mormon magic realism, part II

Read: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

In part I of my discussion of the possibilities of magic realism as a fruitful mode for Mormon fiction writers, I brought up two complications that, at least for me, muddied the project. First, the fuzziness of the label “magic realism,” especially when transferred from the group of Latin American writers and particular mid-20th century works that led to initial category to other literatures. Second, the problem of the “naturalness” of the Mormon events/actions/figures that are often mentioned as possible sources of “magic” — the Three Nephites et al.

To restate the second point a bit: I think part of the enthusiasm among Mormon literary types for the category of magic realism is that it seems to be a way to create narratives where Mormon beliefs — both religious and folk — are treated seriously. Not only would/do such narratives reflect the Mormon experience in a ‘good’ way, they also then fit into a category that is treated seriously by the literary world.

In part I, I question whether or not such narratives would be accepted as magic realist narratives. I suppose at this point I should dig into the literary criticism — discuss how the term is defined and applied. I have read a little of it in the past — enough to know that it is a term in contention and that its definition as a literary mode really depends on what texts a particular critic is in to.

So my preference is to ground this discussion in texts — starting with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s often anthologized and taught “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” It leads to a very different definition or view of magic realism, but I will bring the discussion back around to Mormon literature by comparing it [I am a comparatist by training, after all] to Neal Chandler’s story “The Last Nephite.”

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is about exactly what the title suggests. An old man with wings shows up one day in the muddy courtyard of a poor Catholic family in a small Latin American coastal town. No one is sure what to make of him. He doesn’t seem like a real angel. In addition to his wings, the only other remarkable thing about him is that he speaks a language no one else can understand. He experiences some moments of renown brought on by curiosity and the possibility of miraculous healings (miracles do happen, but in a grotesquely funny manner) — and the family gets rich charging money to see him. The local priest tries to get a statement from Rome on the nature of the old man, but that gets tied up in esoteric debates. Finally, a new freak arrives in town and the old man is forgotten, left to languish in a dirty, decrepit chicken coop, his wings reduced to cannulae. The old man survives a winter with the family, re-grows his wings, and one day in early spring flies away.

Although no exact location or time period is given, the narrative seems to be located in historical time. That “magic” element in the narrative is the presence of the old man. But he is a baffling presence. The magic is not, for example, an appearance by the Blessed Virgin or an exorcism or something else rooted within the supernatural possibilities allowed by Catholic doctrine (even folk doctrine). In fact, the old man presents a problem for the Church — a subject for doctrinal debate rather than a wonderful manifestation of the power of God to be sanctioned and publicized.

This type of magic realism where the magical element is a baffling one poses a challenge for the category of Mormon magic realism — a challenge that is illustrated by Neal Chandler’s “The Last Nephite.”

Stay tuned for part III.

Folk: The Roll Away Saloon

I lived in Kanab, Utah, for most of my childhood.

My maternal grandparents also lived in town and from time to time we’d pile into their big Plymouth sedan and drive about four to five miles south of Kanab to Fredonia, Arizonia, to eat at Nedra’s Café. I liked to order the Navajo tacos and because she knew my grandparents Nedra would often give us a free order of sopapillas — light, crunch-chewy pillows of fried bread dripping with honey. It was a great café and if you are ever in the area, you should check it out.

Right near the Utah-Arizona border, on the Arizona side, was a bar. I remember that often as we drove past it, one of my grandparents [probably my grandfather] would tell me about how back in the early part of the century, the bar was actually set on logs and when the people in Utah would come to shut it down, they’d roll it over across the border into Arizona — and vice versa.

That story stuck with me. Probably because living in a small Mormon Utah town anything having to do with alcohol was unusual. I’m sure that as we passed the bar [called the Buckskin Tavern if I remember correctly], I silently passed judgement on the owners of all the trucks lined up outside. But I think it was more memorable because it was a strange example of the power of borders and jurisdictions. Even though Fredonia was only five miles away and was also a small town filled with sagebrush Mormons, like other Kanabites [yep, that’s what they’re called] I felt that Fredonians were very different from us Utahns and that, frankly, they were inferior.

Now I could be wrong. It could have been my paternal grandparents who told me this story about the saloon, but I think I’m remembering correctly. An intriguing answer to the origin of this story cropped up recently when I was visiting the Morris grandparents at a time when they were trying to clear a portion of clutter from their house. I gladly took several books of Cowboy stories and poetry off their hands including one titled “The Roll Away Saloon: Cowboy Tales of the Arizona Strip.” Published in 1985 by Utah State University Press, the book collects stories told by Rowland W. Rider to his granddaughter Deirdre Murray Paulsen. The title story, of course, tells the same story my grandparents had told me, but with some important differences.

As Rider tells it, the cowboys of the Arizona Strip liked to drink alcohol and all the stores would sell out of it, so they [the cowboys, I guess] built a saloon right on the Arizona-Utah border [i.e. near the current location of the Buckskin Tavern].

Rider says:

“It wasn’t very large, maybe twelve by eighteen feet, but it created quite a bit of disturbance among the Mormon housewives of Fredonia and Kanab because their men would come staggering up home on their horses, too late for dinner, unable to take their saddles off”¦

Well, one day when the women in the Relief Society up to Kanab got together sewing and having a quilting bee, they decided among themselves that too many men were going down imbibing at this Roll Away Saloon. So they organized a posse to go and burn the thing down”¦So when the men all went out on the range or out in the fields or doing something, the women saddled up their horses, a lot of them rode, and some of them took their white-tops and they headed for the saloon.”(3)

The saloon keeper saw the women coming and took a crow bar and trundled the saloon along the logs over the border so “[t]he women got down there and were all ready to light their torches, they had their bundles ready, when the saloon keeper, said, ‘You can’t touch this business; it’s in Arizona. We don’t belong to Utah at all. There’s the line.'” (3-4).

According to Rider, the women from Fredonia did the same thing with the same end result and they went back and forth like this for years.

The two stories — the one I remember and the one Rider relates — bring up a couple of interesting questions about the transmission of folk narratives. Notice that in my grandparent’s story the agents that force the saloon to move are never explicitly stated — whereas in Rider we have a group of angry Mormon women. Rider also adds the details about the posse and the torches. I’m pretty sure I would have remembered those details if they had been included in the story I had heard.

Part of this may be Rider exaggerating things for effect — he is a cowboy storyteller, after all and some of the other stories have some pretty outrageous details. Or it may be that the story was edited or stripped down in how it was told to me — or how it had been originally told to my maternal grandparents.

This all leads to the question of provenance. Rider’s collection was published in 1985 [it was published under another name and by a different publishing house in 1979, but the version my paternal grandparents have is the 1985 edition] — a year after my family moved away from Kanab, and I know that this story was told to me several times while we were living in town. So it seems unlikely to me that the origin of the story I was told is the Rider collection. If it was, then a lot of stuff got left out.

If the story was told to me by my maternal grandparents, then my best guess is that they heard it from friends from Kanab [they moved their in the ’60s — well after the Roll Away Saloon story takes place]. What would be interesting to know is if the story they were told had the same details as Rider’s or if they were told the same stripped down version they told me.

Whatever the provenance, apparently the vivid detail of Mormon women forming a posse and getting ready to light torches was something that needed to be left out in the transmission of the narrative to me. Or was never there in the first place and was added by Rider.

But questions of provenance and censorship or exaggeration aside. Here’s what puzzles me about the Rider narrative:

I always took the story to mean that the Kanab Sheriff and his cronies or other town officials [or maybe even Prohibition-era revenuers — my sense of decades was rather fuzzy back then] were the ones who rode out to shut down the saloon. That’s why the whole border thing made sense — my knowledge of the power of state lines informed, of course, by that great ’80s television show “The Dukes of Hazard.” But why would a state line stop a posse of angry Mormon women? And even then, what kept the Kanab women from conspiring with the Fredonia women to do a simultaneous raid? [Maybe it was that whole Kanabite/Fredonian thing]. Perhaps it as simple as that posses comprised of angry Mormon women still feel bound to obey and sustain the law by honoring state lines.

There’s something to be said here about Rider’s narrative and gender dynamics in small-town Mormonism, but I don’t know enough about the topic to say it.