Four Centuries Contest Discussion: “Little Karl”

The first finalist in Everyday Mormon Writer‘s “Four Centuries of Mormon Stories” contest is Melissa Leilani Larson’s “Little Karl,”which is based on real events in Larson’s family history. Because the stories are relatively short and publicly accessible, this contest gives us an opportunity to talk about specific works we can all be familiar with. We’ll be holding a discussion of each finalist on a different blog starting with a discussion of “Little Karl” here today.

Some opening questions:

What are you initial responses to this story?

How do you see this story interacting with the larger genre of pioneer stories?

Scott Hales recently posted a challenge to Mormon writers and critics “to reflect more deeply, meaningfully, and aggressively on the ‘ongoing negotiations’ between Mormonism and the world.” Where does our history and mythos of persecution fit into our contemporary engagement with the larger society? Is this mythos a barrier to or an asset in productive contemporary writing about Mormons and the larger societies they inhabit?

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19 Responses to Four Centuries Contest Discussion: “Little Karl”

  1. Jonathon Penny says:

    Wow. I’m reminded a little of Ai’s “Child Beater”: matter-of-fact, objective, rational, and insidious, with the narrator never showing her own hand. Heart-breaking all the more for its distance.

  2. Scott Hales says:

    Fantastic story. One of the dangers of writing about the Mormon persecution is the long history Mormon storytelling has with the persecution narrative. In some ways, I think we tire of the usual story of Mormons being driven from Missouri and Nauvoo–because it has been told so often with so little variation for nearly two hundred years–and because the typical Mormon vs. the savage, uneducated “mob” seems too reductive and simplistic.

    What I like about this story is that it sends us ahead fifteen years, long after those early persecutions; adds the immigrant dynamic, which puts the mains characters at an even greater social disadvantage than American Mormons; and gives us insight into the motives behind the kidnapping, which is more than the antagonists get in most Mormon persecution stories. Clearly, we aren’t meant to sympathize with Mrs. Johnson, but knowing why she does what she does makes us connect more emotionally with her and with her victims.

    Again, great story.

    • James Goldberg says:

      I think one thing that fascinates me about the Johnsons is that they want the child so much they’re willing to give up their own home for him. They may be evil and wrong, but there’s certainly a major element of sacrifice in that.

      Maybe that’s part of why I think of this as a ghost story. There’s such a mix of obsession and vulnerability…even though there’s technically no ghost, I leave the story feeling haunted.

      And that’s new, I think, to the genre of early persecution stories. We don’t usually talk about the lingering, haunting element. And yet, that’s part of the hold these experiences must have had on the early Saints. And the haunting part is probably part of the reason why these stories still have such a hold on us.

      As secure as we become in society, I think a lot of Mormons still wonder deep down what might happen if the society turned on us again. That sense of vulnerability is an interesting counterpoint to (or component of?) the faithful, fearless aspect of our pioneer mythic heritage.

    • Wm says:

      That’s certainly aggressive negotiation.

  3. Paul says:

    I was moved by today’s story. I do not have LDS pioneer heritage myself, so do not have these family stories as part of my history.

    The cool detachment of the narrator is what draws me into the story. I am left to judge Mrs. Johnson rather than the story’s doing it for me. The imagery of the briars pulling at Annie was quite effective for me. I also felt those briars tugging at me as I learned what happened while Annie caught the goat.

    I also appreciated this story’s setting later in history than the most turbulent period in Missouri — both as a reminder of those who were still there of necessity, but also of the residual effects of earlier persecution.

    The persecution that is Karl’s kidnapping is personal for Annie and Andrew: this is a crime against individuals more than against A People. It is a reminder for me that for those who suffer it, all persecution is personal.

    • Th. says:


      I think that element of the Personal is what makes it so gripping. This is much more closely aligned to the horrors parents imagine for themselves today. It’s thus less historical and more possible.

  4. Mark Penny says:

    And we’re off–with a bang.

    Among other things, this story points up the problem of vulnerability: the vulnerability of ignorance, the vulnerability of trust. We take a lot for granted that we could easily lose in this world of self-serving ideology.

    Abduction and violence aside, Mrs. Johnson’s attitude is disturbingly familiar. Many an adherent of another faith has felt something like the Larsons when we’ve come to sit on the porch or ride by in the night.

  5. emily falke says:

    Horrifying. Absolutely horrifying. That it happened, that it was effectively done in the name of Christ-like love, that none of their “ward family” helped them because they were afraid of retribution.

    It’s pulled me in so much that I can’t help but wonder what happened to Annie and Andrew after this? Do they continue West to Utah, “burying” little Karl like so many mothers and fathers buried children along the journey? Or do they forsake – nothing being worth this terrible crime?

    • Jeanna says:

      On sort of a side note, I wondered what “based on real events” meant in this case. In so many examples of movies and tv and books, “based on” pretty much means that one tiny detail was at least similar to the actual events. It’s not that I doubt something like this could have occurred, but I did wonder to what extent the story reflected reality.
      One way or another, the story certainly felt real and haunting. It was powerful and painful and well-done. I just also wonder how real it was.

      • Th. says:


        The story stands on its own which is why I haven’t asked Mel to delineate fact and fiction. Though I want to know, do I need to?

        • Jeanna says:

          I agree, the story does stand on its own, and I was actually perfectly content for it to be fiction. But (and this is just a personal quirk) I always get this itchy feeling when I read that something is based on true events. And then I really want to know.

          So no, I don’t need to know, but I do get curious.

        • Jeanna, email me at mel underscore leilani at me dot com and I’ll tell you the history.

  6. Ugh. Gut-wrenching.

    I thought the pace was great. Wasn’t bogged down with detail, and yet the details given were perfect. It’s a “broken story,” so I know it’s not meant to have a real resolution, but I can’t help but wish for one.

  7. KDA says:

    I liked this story for reasons others have cited: the narrator is matter-of-fact & there is a real blurring of lines between good and evil, showing how these terms get historicized / contextualized. I also like the lyric quality of the prose. It’s telling a horrible story through a pretty style (and that friction is a little creepy). It also invites me to consider how today we might be imposing our will on others in the name of goodness. Recognizing how I might be complicit in violence (institionalized, subtle) against others is the scariest element for me.

  8. Pingback: Discussion: Your take on the Four Centuries contest stories | Dawning of a Brighter Day

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