If you had asked me about Mormon literature a decade ago, I probably would have said “what’s that?”. My mom had a few books of poetry by Carol Lynn Pearson and I sometimes enjoyed the fiction in the Ensign or New Era, but growing up I was largely unaware of most Mormon cultural baggage. I was raised primarily in Southern California, and my dad has been inactive for most of my life. My mom took us to church every week and we sporadically had scripture study and Family Home Evening, but I don’t remember much emphasis being placed on cultural Mormonism in my home. While other Mormon families were listening to the Osmonds, my parents preferred The Rolling Stones (I was a little dismayed in seminary to learn that some people thought the Stones were evil).
I did grow up in a home filled with books; my dad favors science fiction, thrillers, nonfiction and horror. My mom prefers historical fiction and “classics”. I was an early, voracious, and indiscriminate reader. I went through phases of infatuation with things like Sweet Valley High,The Babysitters Club, and Nancy Drew but by the time I reached high school I mostly read historical fiction and ‘deeper’ (i.e. serious and depressing) authors like Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Thomas Hardy. I consistently cultivated a dislike of fantasy, science fiction, and most contemporary teen fiction.
After high school I decided to attend BYU, which was both a positive experience because I got to meet so many other Mormons and a negative one because I realized that I was still a nerdy social outcast even when surrounded by other Mormons. By my junior year I had settled on being an English major because I loved to read books (at this point in my life I still had few concrete plans for my future). After that year ended I left to serve a mission in Spain.
I returned from my mission and came back to Provo in time for spring term at BYU. The day after I arrived in town was my birthday, and a friend with whom I had served appeared at my door with a gift for me. It was a copy of Rumors of War, the first book in Dean Hughes’ Children of the Promise series. Apparently my friend’s sisters had liked it and so he thought I would like it too. It turns out that I liked the book quite a lot; I had never read a novel with Mormon characters, and I already loved historical fiction about World War Two. The book was a perfect fit for me. This particular young man and I started dating and were married shortly before the end of the year. He was also an English major, but more interested in creative writing than literary criticism (as a side note, we are no longer married).
Our first semester as a married couple we took a young adult literature class together. This class was critical to me for several reasons: first it opened my eyes to the possibility of ‘good’ literature existing beyond the classical canon, second it introduced me to some wonderful LDS authors writing for the national market, and third it got me reading outside of my comfort zone (hey, I can read and enjoy books about guys who play sports). The following fall my husband took a class on LDS literature; I had wanted to take the class, but my schedule didn’t allow me to so I just read most of the books along with him. The first book I read was Angel of the Danube by Alan Rex Mitchell. That book was another eye-opener for me. I had served a mission in Europe and could really relate to most of the book’s major plot points. Here was someone writing seriously about issues in my life, without easy answers or clichés. The next book I read was Doug Thayer’s Under the Cottonwoods , which, while totally different in style, had the same effect on me. Thayer’s work reminded me of some of my favorite authors from high school; I think he is as close to Steinbeck as we have in the Mormon literary world. At the same time I discovered the personal essay and journals such as Irreantum, Segullah, and Dialogue and I have never looked back.
Last spring I needed a job and applied for a part-time position at my local library. I live in Utah, so I made the assumption that at least one of the interviewers was LDS, and even if none of them were they would at least have heard of Mormon literature. I somewhat hesitantly mentioned that I liked to read Mormon lit, and then waxed rhapsodic about my recent reading of George Handley’s Home Waters. Thankfully one of my interviewers is the main buyer for LDS fiction for the library, and they all were impressed by the fact that I read and pay attention to the world of Mormon literature. I have to admit that I was a little excited to add ‘librarian’ to my credentials, rather than just ‘avid reader’, since so many people I interact with here and in other forums seem to have more ‘legitimate’ titles like ‘writer’, ‘publisher’, ‘playwright’, or ‘professor’. So, I offer my thoughts to you first as a reader and admirer of literature, and secondly as a professional who works with books and readers. I’ll try not to make my future posts so self-referential and self-indulgent, but maybe I can redeem this one by asking you a question. How did you discover Mormon literature?