Mormons have a long history with the historical novel. Early in the twentieth century, for example, writers like Susa Young Gates and Nephi Anderson used the historical novel to create a romanticized version of the Mormon past for post-Manifesto readers who were unsure of what to do with their strange heritage. The nineteenth century, after all, had bequeathed the rising generation a problematic past marked by polygamy and militant isolationism, which was not exactly a past young Mormons—especially young upwardly-mobile Mormons—were eager to flaunt. Novels like Marcus King, Mormon (1900), John Stevens’ Courtship (1909), and John St. John (1917), therefore, provided new narratives that downplayed polygamy’s centrality in nineteenth-century Mormon life and emphasized the intensely violent persecutions and displacements of the Church’s early years. This gave turn-of-the-century Mormons a legacy of injustice that they could collectively embrace and identify with independent of any allegiance to a defunct marriage practice that the rest of the nation viewed as divisive criminal behavior.
The novelists of Mormondom’s Lost Generation also found the historical novel to be a useful genre. Largely disenchanted with contemporary Mormonism, they revisited the Nauvoo and pioneer eras as heroic episodes in American history—something for which Mormons and non-Mormons could feel a shared sense of pride. At the same time, however, these historical novels scandalized members of the Church by specializing in earthy representations of early Mormons and polygamy. In a sense, novels like Vardis Fisher’s The Children of God, Maureen Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, and Virginia Sorensen’s A Little Lower than the Angels opened the closet doors wide and exposed the skeletons that the previous generation of Mormon historical novelists had tried so hard to keep hidden. They also offered a valid critique of the complacency and ongoing provincialism of mid-twentieth-century Mormonism.
The Mormon historical novel had another resurgence at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. In many ways, Gerald N. Lund’s hugely successful The Work and the Glory series was the catalyst, although popular historical novels from the 1970s and 1980s—like Charlie’s Monument and Lee Nelson’s Storm Testament series—likely contributed as well. These novels—particularly in the case of Lund’s work—represent a kind of correlation response to the genre. Much of Lund’s work is drawn directly—sometimes word-for-word—from official sources like The History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church History in the Fulness of Times, and Our Legacy. Like the historical novels from the previous turn-of-the-century, Lund’s novels also downplayed polygamy and kept a steady focus on the themes of persecution and displacement. In a sense, you can look at The Work and the Glory and its many imitators as attempts to breathe some life into the correlated account of Mormon history—while remaining faithful to that account and not committing the heresy of creative deviation. Indeed, if any feature characterizes this era of Mormon fiction, it is the exhaustive list of endnotes that follow each chapter, which assure readers that what they have been reading is grounded soundly in Truth. To me, these notes are a kind of apology to the reader, a contrite corrective to the lamentable use of fiction in the novel. I’d rather see a fiction that problematizes the historical record and our notion of what really happened.
In some ways, I think our current historical fiction is still stuck in the wagon ruts of Lund’s series. We are, in other words, still hanging on to the correlated version of Mormon history even though the past three decades of Mormon historical scholarship has made it abundantly clear that the Mormon past is much richer and more complex that the stories we get in our teaching manuals (and the novels based on them). In my opinion, we need to cultivate a Mormon historical novel that reaches beyond the rote narratives of our institutional memory and reinterprets our two-hundred year legacy anew for our generation. In fact, I think the historical novel, more so than any other genre, has the potential to turn the hearts of the children to the fathers and mothers and bind generations together. Can there be a more Mormon aim? Can there be a more Mormon genre? Certainly, in an age when so many Latter-day Saints are becoming increasingly confused about conflicting versions of the Mormon past, a genre that seeks to makes sense and meaning out of the confusion is of far more worth, say, than a new five volume fantasy series or Mormon space saga.
Of course, I’ve recently purchased a copy of Sarah Dunster’s Lightning Tree, which I’m happy to report does not have endnotes at the end of every chapter. I haven’t read it yet, but what I know about it gives me hope for the Mormon historical novel. I like that Lightning Tree takes place outside the grasp of correlated history and focuses on characters who, like the majority of Saint who crossed the plains, do not fill the pages of Who’s Who in Mormon History. I’m also glad to see that Zarahemla Books is reissuing the Standing on the Promises series, which takes Lund’s popular formula and uses it to tell the largely forgotten and ignored story of black Mormons. More work along these lines remains.
Personally, I think the Lost Generation was right to focus their efforts on the historical novel. They saw a need for a new historical narrative within the Church and its people, and they provided a narrative. Sadly, I think they erred in their cynical approach, which ultimately alienated a large portion of their target readership, and failed to bring about the cultural correctives their work imagined.
We are again living at a time that needs new historical narratives–fresh, honest takes on the past. I continue to hope for better historical novels about the Mormon past, but I think we also need to improve our historical narratives in every artistic medium, especially film. What are we doing to tell the right historical narratives for right now?
And what are the right historical narratives?