Commentary: Tell Us A Story

Last week I visited Michael Olson’s AP English high school classes in Spanish Fork, Utah. Michael, who also runs The Payson Chronicle, asked that I discuss “the writing process” with his students and talk about tensions that may exist between what the reader got from a story and what the writer intended in writing it. He wanted me to read from my novel, too. I hadn’t stood before young students in years. I’d forgotten how much work it takes to keep a class of kids together, moving in some meaningful direction.

In both classes enough desks stood empty that the room itself seemed to hang between sizes. The students sprawled a-gangle in their seats. The classroom atmosphere reminded me of a teenager’s bedroom, an enclosure filled with draped clothes and tossed comments, all being rapidly outgrown. I liked these kids; I envied Mr. Olson’s good fortune in getting to know them. An unstated quo vadis* hung between us, a specter of my interest in them, one I supposed only I could see. I’ve loved students since my days teaching English 115 and Philosophy 105 at BYU. I miss the whole teaching adventure.

Sometimes the kids sat up sharp listening; sometimes their heads sank onto desktops. Some appeared to be out cold, but I learned I couldn’t trust appearances. A student might lie slumped onto her desk like a spruce tree branch overloaded with snow, then she’d spring up suddenly and split the classroom with a question. The rustle of notes passing back and forth underlaid all words spoken aloud like subtext.

I proposed that when it came to storytelling the storyteller ought to allow the audience to play a strong role at times. “A good story should contain some of the qualities of a good stone soup. Do you know the story “˜Stone Soup?'” Some thought they did. They tried to tell it but faltered; they’d forgotten. When I discovered this gaping hole in their education I tried to fill it. College-bound students shouldn’t leave high school without knowing about “Stone Soup.”

Whenever a word or two snagged their interest, questions flew: What? Where? When? Why? How? “How do you know,” they asked, “when to use who and when to use whom?” The question seemed to cause genuine distress. I tried to reassure them. “Don’t worry about it. The English language is evolving, that usage is dying out.” I joked it would be gone in thirty years. “But I notice when you speak you use it correctly,” Mr. Olson said. (Who/whom is one of his pet peeves.) “I’m the last one. When I die, it’ll be gone,” I said. The students weren’t satisfied; I saw in their eyes they still wanted to know what I knew, but I let the matter drop. Let who/whom remain a trick we grammatical nerds keep dark.

“What is “˜archetype?'” “What does “˜esoteric’ mean?” “What does it feel like when you see your book on the shelf at a bookstore?” If I spent an hour answering each of these questions, I imagined I’d still see that look, the one that says, “You’re not telling us everything.” “But why do we have to experience evil?” one young woman asked. This was in the context of archetype and the archetypal story’s engagement of the conflict between good and evil, not only as it plays out upon story battlefields but also as it rages in the hearts of readers immersed in the struggle. How could I demonstrate in a few minutes that even a question like “Why do we have to experience evil?” has a dark and dangerous side?

I couldn’t; I took the easier road. “The cool thing about reading good literature,” I said, “is that you can confront evil in a relatively safe manner, in a text, often in a familiar and secure location, rather than going out and finding evil in more dangerous and unexpected circumstances.” Blank stares. “Where do you read?” I asked. “In my bed.” “In the living room on the couch.” “In the car.” “All safe, comfortable places. If you become frightened, you can stop and find yourself back in familiar surroundings.” An idea struck me. I asked, “Do you read folktales in school anymore?” They shook their heads no. I pitied them for their loss of fundamental narratives, plain yet well turned-language that supports imagination. I told them how, when I was young, I cut my reader’s teeth on such stories as “How Bear Lost His Tale,” Aesop’s fables, Br’er Rabbit tales, etc. Then came a surprise, one that erupted spontaneously in both classes and that snagged my attention. “Did you bring any good stories for us?” they asked. “Tell us a story!” The shine in their eyes was like the glistening of tongues whetted by appetite.

At this point, speaking with them became easier; no longer was there any need to keep them together. At the prospect of hearing a story they all ran up to me in complete attention and we gathered around that linguistic fire ring where people meet to tell and hear stories. I read an old Kalapuya tale, “Coyote Takes Water From the Frog People,” then tales of my own making that I’ve put in my novel, a different one to each class: “The Fox That Was Raised By Dogs,” “Why Is Coyote So Smart?” The subtext stopped rustling. In both classes students’ faces opened like morning glories in the first real sun that had shined into the schoolroom.

Looking back I realize that stories were what these students wanted all along. As a storyteller, I should have known that. I see the undying need for good narratives in my own children, in my fifteen-year-old’s retained interest in bedtime stories, albeit more complex ones that when he was eight. It’s in my eight-year-old’s astonishing appetite for Grimm’s Fairytales and her willingness to engage more complex stories when I read them with her older brother. I hear it in my disabled daughter’s cooed “yes” when I ask if she wants me to read to her. I have my own hunger and thirst after fine narrative, original to my earliest consciousness–the need to engage and be egaged by story that I myself have never outgrown.

Thank you, Mr. Olson’s AP English students, for calling my attention to an important matter I’d overlooked. I learned a storyteller’s lesson from you: If I speak to students again, high school or otherwise, I’ll go better arrayed with stories and do what comes naturally to a storyteller facing a young audience. Inbetween tales I’ll dazzle the class with such esoterica** as what archetype means and when one ought to use who and whom, rather than doing things the other way around. Whatever I think I know about evil, grammar, and how I feel about being an author I’ll let the stories tell, because good stories, even modern ones, contain the stuff of ancient wisdom; they’re much older and smarter than I.

*quo vadis: Latin; literally, “Where are you going?”
**esoterica: mysterious matters

Folk: A pioneer song

In honor of Mormon pioneer day — July 24 — a pioneer song collected by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers that appears in pay someone to do essay the 1960 edition of History of Kane County:

THE PIONEERS

Tune (Keep the Home Fires Burning)

O’er the prairies came the pleading
Of a people sore distressed,
Who sought refuge in the mountains
Of the sunny, golden west;
Here to worship God in freedom,
Build a statehood fair and strong.
Then with reverence let their daughters
Join and sing this cheery song:

Keep their memories burning,
By their history learning.
Though but few of them remain,
We love them all.
Through the azure gleaming
There’s a bright star beaming
On the banner of our land
And they placed it there.

They are sleeping on the hillside,
They are sleeping on the plain,
The who made the deseret blossom
With fields of waving grain.
Let our voices swell in praises
As the years they pass along,
And although we miss their faces
We will sing this cheery song:

Keep their memories burning,
By their history learning.
Though they sleep in silent graves,
We love them still.
Through the azure gleaming
There’s a bright star beaming
On the banner of our land
And they placed it there.

–Alfa J. Robinson (p. 257. History of Kane County. Compiled and edited by Elsie Chamberlain Carroll. Kane County Daughters of the Utah Pioneers: 1960, Salt Lake City).

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.

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.

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.