I recently finished reading THE SCHOLAR OF MOAB, by Steven L. Peck, which
received the AML Novel Award for last year, and I want to say, first of all, that the writing in this book is wonderful. The characters are strong and clearly defined, and they each have their own unique voices. And the author provides them with plenty of opportunities to express themselves, so the reader can get to know them.
That said, I am a little confused about whether or not this novel represents what AML is all about as an association for promoting Mormon Literature (as we say “literature by, for, or about Mormons”). Clearly, since it was given the novel award, it has much that is worthwhile as a novel, and other readers have appreciated its contribution to literature. But I am confused about its place in Mormon literature.
I am confused because I found every Mormon in this book (except one) to be depicted as naive and gullible and narrow-minded. The exception was a young geology student from BYU who, when invited to help the title character experiment on how much faith bumblebees need to have in order to fly (because, as asserted in the book, scientists had proven that they can’t fly by natural means, so they must fly by faith*), devised an
experiment that involved cutting off slivers of the bumblebees’ wings until they didn’t have enough faith to keep flying (or enough wing), and then encouraging the “Scholar” to submit a paper on their experiments to a scientific journal. The paper was accepted for publication because the editors took the whole thing as a joke, and the “Scholar” was too naive to realize that, even though the “educated” Mormon must have known. So while he wasn’t a stupid Mormon, he was cruel and unscrupulous.
(*Scientist have since figured out how bumblebees fly–and why scientists were wrong about them not being able to, something that the author, as a biologist surely must know.)
The only characters that I connected with in the story were non-Mormons: a Wiccan poetess who believed in aliens and UFOs from personal experience, and conjoined triplets, and they were also the only ones I found believable. The title character was an extremely unreliable narrator, and the frame narrator (the “Redactor”) was barely a character at all–his motivation for narrating (or compiling or redacting) the whole tale was never explained, nor, as Scott Parkin points out in his review posted on this blog, was the question about what really happened to the “Scholar” ever asked, even though that may have been the unmentioned motivation. (Unlike Scott Parkin’s reaction upon finishing
this book–”deep dissatisfaction [which] caused me to rant at whoever would (pretend) to listen”–I was merely depressed, and this blog post is the result of my depression.)
Are Mormons who are either on the outs with the Church, in one way or another, or who are naive, stupid, narrow-minded, rigid, or gullible, the kinds of characters we want to encourage in Mormon Literature? I don’t ask just because of this most recent AML novel award. I also ask because of books like RIFT, by Todd Robert Petersen, and THE LONELY POLYGAMIST, by Brady Udall, the two preceding novel awards given by AML.
Are faithful, sacrificing, praying, learning, and repenting Mormons just not worthy of the kind of wonderful writing produced by authors like Steven L. Peck and Brady Udall, or is it just impossible to write well about such Mormons? (Please feel free to consider that a challenge.)
Are there no worthwhile stories in the Mormon experience about struggling with the tests and trials of this life and enduring faithful to the end? Stories about Mormons firmly within the Church, as opposed to those on the edge, or those being converted, or those falling away? Or are Mormons who do are faithful all the way through a story just not believable enough for fiction? What kinds of characters are worthy of our best writing and of literature that is truly by, for, and about Mormons?
I am also curious about why this book and the other recent novel award recipients are considered to be representative enough of Mormon literature for them to deserve awards from AML in spite of the way Mormons are portrayed in their pages?