Review: A Few Good Mormon Novels

So there’s several Mormon novels I read that I kept meaning to review, but never got around to it. They were there in the back of my head, screaming at me, “Tell the world about us!” I looked compassionately at those great works of art and said, “Okay, I have a duty to you for making my life that much better. Okay.” So these are going to be fast and dirty, but they’ll be better than the guilty silence that has waited impatiently the past several years. So here’s a handful of some of the best Mormon Literature that I have come across the last several years:


by P.G. Karamasines

Written by AMV’s very own Patricia Karasamines, this novel still has left a very vivid impression on me, despite the fact that it’s been probably six or seven years since I read it. It’s the story of Alex McKelvey, a Mormon convert who participates in a BYU sponsored archaeology dig in Southern Utah. Alex is a English/folklore student at the Y and a naturalist, so although she isn’t actually studying archaeology, her interest in the Southwest and the myths and culture of the Native Americans makes her interest in participating in the dig more than believable. At the dig, a disappearance and possible murder occurs, which leads us into an intriguing plot involving the possible involvement of mythological figures, culture clashes, and a tight, interesting thriller plot.

The characters in the novel were well drawn and intriguing, especially Alex (and, interestingly enough, her Siberian husky Kit), as well as the portrayal of the Native American mythological figure Coyote. Character driven in a magical realism setting, this was an achingly beautiful novel, despite masquerading as a thriller. The evocative language Karamesines uses, especially when describing Southern Utah’s emotional beauty or  using her archetypal brush to paint new visions on Native American mythology. Being a lover of mythology, cultural exchange, and poetic prose, this book was right up my alley. Beautifully written, intelligently plotted, and deeply satisfying, I would heartily recommend The Pictograph Murders to nearly anyone.

Continue reading “Review: A Few Good Mormon Novels”

Weekend (Re)Visitor: Salvador (again)

Although I remembered most of the plot of Salvador (Amazon), re-reading it five or six years after my initial encounter with it was still an experience of surprise and intensity. And oddly, I think it was an even more intense experience because since I already knew, sorta recalled the basic narrative  and thematic arc for the main character Julie, my mind was freed up to focus on everything else, and it turns out that there is a lot going on.

In short, Salvador became a more important novel to me through the re-read.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first, though: it is not a work of magical realism. Nobody makes hard claims for that, but the term is still sometimes invoked in relation to the novel. It’s easy to see why — it takes place in El Salvador and there’s a certain lushness and vividness and poetics to the imagery — swarms of butterflies, sparkling fireflies, the cry of a jaguar in the night, the smell of gardenias, or the impression that the fruits on the mango tree are decapitated heads. But any values or magic assigned to the nature imagery are provided by Julie. She experiences El Salvador as magical (until everything goes to hell). Continue reading “Weekend (Re)Visitor: Salvador (again)”

Weekend (Re)Visitor: Salvador by Margaret Young

I am 50 pages into a re-reading of Margaret Blair Young‘s second novel Salvador (Aspen Books, 1992). I first read it in the early part of this decade and captivated by her teeming prose, pseudo-elements of magic realism (more on that later, hopefully), and use of humor. It all rushed back with the first page.

Let me give you an example of the achingly beautiful prose:

“Salto Blanco” is a hundred-foot waterfall that cascades into steaming craters. You hike up a mountain, then descend a ravine that rivals the Grand Canyon. Half way down, you hear the crackle of the waterfall and see the craters’ steam rising as during creation. Closer, and you see “Blanco” foaming over the cliffs like milk; leaves and moss glistening under it; steam rising from the craters, mixing with its pray. You are descending into an inferno made lovely. Iridescent blue butterflies the size of a child’s hand are hovering everywhere. There are purple-veined green orchids, hibiscus, coconut palms. There are people inside the craters, like something out of Dante. But this is their bath, not their punishment. They know which pitcs scald, and they add cold well-water to the safest ones. They are washing themselves in perfectly warm sulphur water, jumping around happily like brown frogs.

The novel is about Julie, a recently divorced Mormon woman in her early twenties who travels with her (excommunicated, Vietnam vet) dad and (kooky, hippy-like) mom to visit her mom’s brother and her dad’s former mission companion in El Salvador. Uncle Johnny has married a local beauty queen and set up a farm and a bit of a commune to help out (and continue preaching the gospel) to the locals. Other than one early, horrific incident, I’m not yet to that part of the novel where things go seriously wrong and some serious stuff comes out. And to be honest, I don’t quite remember the particulars — just that it’s coming. And I’m thinking that this time I need to dig in deeper to what’s going on, with the language, the use of the materials, the Mormonism, the linkages to faithful realism.

I don’t think Aspen publishes literary fiction anymore. And Young would go on to publish just one more novel in the faithful realism mode — Heresies of Nature. Most of her writing time since the mid ’90s has gone to her work with Darius Grey (including the historical fiction series Standing on the Promises) and blogging and short work. All excellent work that Margaret has felt called to do. But so far my revisiting of Salvador has made me wish for more of the quirky, well-crafted, achingly beautfiul but also funny woman’s voice in faithful realism. It’s been a strange exercise in nostalgia, rediscovery and luxuriating in good writing so far. A flashback to when the field of Mormon literary fiction seemed to hold so much promise. I think we’re in a pretty good place at the moment. But rereading Salvador is a reminder that the trajectory hasn’t been quite what I (and perhaps others) thought it would be. The irony, of course, is that I’m talking about a time a decade after the novel was published. I wonder how those who were ensconced in the community in 1992 feel now.

A problem with endings

What do the following Mormon market novels have in common: Angel of the Danube, Brother Brigham, Hunting Gideon, Kindred Spirits, On Second Thought and Salvador*?

  1. I have read all of them and like all of them.
  2. They each have something wrong with their endings — generally minor things, but they each have a moment (or moments) that made me go “wait a minute.” That jerked me out of the reading flow.

This is not to say they are “bad” novels or that they totally fall apart in the end or that I know how they should be fixed.

And I want to point out that ending a novel perfectly is one of the most difficult feats in literature. Short story endings are easy (relatively speaking). Novel endings have a lot to do and they have to finish up while tying up at least some of the narrative threads. They have to maintain intensity but also allow a little bit of catharsis and slackening of tension. A bit of resolution is nice. If you end too abruptly, the reader often feels cheated. On the other hand, if you tie up all of the loose ends, the ending is often too pat. It’s a hard thing to do and even some novels that are considered part of the canon don’t end all that gracefully. For example, I found the endings of Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King and The Adventures of Augie March to be weak. Heck, Kafka couldn’t even end any of his novels. So I don’t raise this because I want to bag on the authors of the novels listed above. All worth reading if their author and subject matter appeal to you.

However, as a believer in craftmanship in fiction, I also think that with the novels above (many of which are first or second efforts) much of the blame lies with the immaturity of the writers.  And with that in mind, I’ve asked Stephen Carter to post about how to write better endings over at The Red Brick Store. So head on over there and find out how to fix your endings. Meanwhile, let’s talk here about what novels have endings that work for you and novels that fall down a bit in the end.

* There are probably other Mormon market novels that fit in this same category, but these are the ones that I was able to pull out of my head without going through my entire library.

Updated at 11:30 a.m. to reflect that Stephen’s post was up.