We Mormons have very few postmodern bones in our bodies. Our idea of a good story is the Latter-day Saint Voices section of the Ensign—450 words from conflict to resolution. We seem to abhor ambiguity, skipping the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon to get right to Nephi’s plain and simple interpretation.
Interestingly, we do have one practice that is very postmodern: the “flip and pick” approach to scripture study. Even in the Ensign, you’ll find stories of people addressing a question or difficulty in their lives by flipping open the scriptures randomly and snatching up a contextless verse in hope that it will somehow find a meaningful place to fit into their own personal story.
Such is the approach of Rosalie Wolfe in Marylee Daniel Mitcham’s novel Blacktime Song by Rosalie Wolfe. But instead of picking a random spot of scripture, Rosalie chooses a random spot of land—a bit of wilderness unknown to her and her daughter. She finds a tiny, isolated cabin she can afford, and waits for the divine to find her.
Blacktime Song is pretty much a novella—158 pages long. But, while reading it, I remembered that some of the great pieces of literature are similarly slim: The Red Badge of Courage, The Old Man and the Sea, The Pearl, Heart of Darkness, Siddhartha. What distinguishes these works is not that they are brief, but that each word is a refined essence, that their stories are whole, deep, and resonant enough that they can present themselves plainly.
“Book 1″ of Blacktime Song, revolving around Rosalie’s interactions with her conflicted landlord, a young man on a spiritual quest, and her sibylline daughter Meadow into whom evil is just beginning to creep, contains some of the most vibrantly poetic (yet readable) prose I’ve come across. I gasped at least once a page at the freshness and potency of Mitcham’s metaphors and turns of phrase.
He reminded her of something slight. A piece of straw. The one you find driven through a telephone pole after a tornado.
Then she mashed her face into a tire track and began to cry the way you can when you’re all alone.
Slapstick continues to be as good a word for wrestling with God as I know.
The simple, graceful lines of the story, the intricate—yet human—interactions between characters, the quirky dance of the language all combined in my mind to lift the work from novella to parable, brimming with interpretive potential.
However, I’m talking about Book 1, here. There is also a “Book 2:” a short memoir written by Rosalie decades after the main story about life postdating her season in the wilderness, as well as addenda, including a letter from Meadow—now a professor of American literature at BYU, a French poem with English translation and a brief epilogue by Mark Twain written from the afterlife. I assume that these, disconnected as some of them seem from the main story, are meant to construct a larger, more intricate narrative. One of my all-time favorite postmodern novels Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson, employs a similar tactic, intercutting the main narrative with a fantasy story. My English diploma may be taken away for this, but I have to admit that I don’t understand how the sub stories (in either book) work. The language and narrative grace that left me breathless in Blacktime Song’s main story evaporate for the most part in the other sections. If anyone out there is willing, would you write to me and help me understand how these fit with the main work? I’m very interested.
I’m going to be a postmodern Mormon here and pluck this sublime 110-page story from Mitcham’s book—contextless and brimming with potential—to place it on the shelf where I keep my collection of soul-opening stories. It is a true gem.