Five Nephi Anderson Novels You Should Read Before You Die

This week I plan to finish my dissertation chapter on Nephi Anderson’s novels. As the current draft climbs to around 65 pages, I realize that trying to encapsulate Anderson’s contribution to Mormon letters in one chapter is a fool’s errand. Easily Anderson’s work is worthy of a full-length work of criticism.

Anderson is still not widely read among Church members, although Added Upon still rings a bell among those in my parents’ generation (i.e. those fifty and older). This is unfortunate because I believe that his works ought to be part of every Mormon writer’s vocabulary. The more I read his works, the more impressed I am with his ambition, his depth of thought, and his skill as a writer.

Of course, Anderson was not a perfect writer. I get annoyed with his occasional attacks on Protestant “sectarians,” and I sometimes have a hard time telling his male protagonists apart, but I remind myself that he was writing during a very different era of Mormon history and from a very different mindset than I am accustomed to. I find that his novels work best when I read them charitably.

I don’t expect many of you to read Anderson as enthusiastically as I have, but I thought it might be helpful to recommend a few starter texts for those of you are interested in jumping on the Anderson bandwagon. Below I’ve listed the five Nephi Anderson novels you should read before you die. Beneath each novel is a brief justification for why I include the novel on the list.  After each item, I’ve also selected an “alternate” choice from the five remaining Anderson novels that didn’t make the cut.

1. Piney Ridge Cottage (1912)

Piney Ridge Cottage was the first novel Anderson published in book form after his 1904-1906 mission to England. It is also one of three Anderson novels set solely in Utah, making it one of his most explicitly regional novels. At heart a love story, Piney Ridge Cottage offers glimpses into turn-of-the century Mormon life, immigrant culture, and the effects of industrialization on the rural Utah countryside. It’s also introduces readers to one of Anderson’s most memorable characters, Chester Lawrence, who returns in an aptly-titled sequel (and Titanic precursor) The Story of Chester Lawrence.

Alternate: The Story of Chester Lawrence (1913)

2. Dorian (1921)

I like to say that Dorian is the first modern Mormon novel for the way it takes a step back from the propagandistic approach of most early Mormon novels and levels a subtle critique at Mormon culture and the pioneer legacy. While this happens in a limited way in Piney Ridge Cottage and the utopian section in Added Upon, Dorian brings the matter front and center, tackling such issues as wealth inequality and what Anderson seems to suggest is a misguided emphasis on works over grace. Dorian is also worth reading for the way it reflects an earlier time when the Church’s leading theologians—notably James E. Talmage and John A. Widtsoe—earnestly endeavored to reconcile science and religion.

Alternate: The Boys of Springtown (1920)

3. A Daughter of the North (1915)

A Daughter of the North is Anderson’s third novel set in Norway (following Added Upon and The Castle Builder) and contains his best female character, the courageous Atelia Heldman. The novel opens with Atelia winning an all-male national regatta race, follows her through her spiritual and intellectual conversion to Mormonism, and ends with her rescuing a shipwrecked crew of imperiled men. This kind of traditional role reversal, as best as I can tell, is rare in early Mormon literature, making A Daughter of the North a must-read for those interested in gender issues in Mormon fiction.

Alternate: Added Upon (1898, 1912)

4. The Castle Builder (1902)

The Castle Builder is Anderson’s first good novel. (Its predecessors—Added Upon and Marcus King, Mormon—are not so much bad as they are clunky in execution.) Harald Einerson, the protagonist, is one of Anderson’s best-drawn characters. He begins life as a poor sheepherder in rural Norway, survives his abusive father’s alcoholism, educates himself, loses his Protestant faith, becomes a political radical, plots to overthrow the Norwegian monarchy, then converts to Mormonism. Of all of Anderson’s convert characters, I think Harald’s conversion experience is the best written—so much so that I think  Mormon writers today ought to look to it for insight on how to write convincing spiritual experiences.

Alternate: Marcus King, Mormon (1900)

5. Romance of a Missionary (1919)

Anderson based much of Romance of a Missionary on his experiences as a missionary in England when he served for two years as associate editor of the Millennial Star. Originally titled The Man from Mormonia, the novel received its current title—I assume—to draw more attention to a subplot involving the main character, an American missionary named Willard Dean, and a former girlfriend who happens to show up in his field of labor near the end of the novel. The title, though, is somewhat misleading as the main plot involves Willard’s efforts to help his English cousins find the gospel and battle poverty and alcoholism in the English slums. The novel is not a great one, but Anderson’s attention to the seedy side of industrial London, as well as it being one of the first Mormon novels about missionary labor, make it worth a read. As I read Ryan McIlvaine’s Elders, in fact, I can’t help but notice how little has changed in Mormon missionary fiction over the years. Just like McIlvaine’s missionaries, Willard Dean struggles with his testimony and libido. McIlvaine details these struggles much more graphically, of course, but the themes are still very much the same…

Alternate: John St. John (1917)

This entry was posted in Mormon LitCrit and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Five Nephi Anderson Novels You Should Read Before You Die

  1. Th. says:

    .

    Bold of you, not to include Added Upon as a must. I have to disagree just because of it’s greater historical significance.

    I think Piney Ridge will be the next one I pick up.

    Lastly, I have to say, I think Ryan will be very unhappy with your comparison. Poor fellow. Then again, maybe not. Who can say.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I have to agree that Added Upon needs to be read, if only because it illustrates the potential of fiction to affect popular Mormon consciousness.

      That said, it seems to me that Scott’s purpose here has less to do with rating things according to impact, and more to do with using Anderson as an example of early explorations of what Mormon fiction can achieve, both artistically and in terms of representing Mormon experience.

      • Scott Hales says:

        I think Jonathan is partly right here about my purposes. Aside from being my favorite Anderson novels, these are works that ought to be a part of our Mormon cultural storehouse. I see this list a group that could potentially inform countless new Mormon literary texts. We ought to build on this foundation Anderson has given us.

        My assumption while making this list was that most people had already read Added Upon or knew about it. I want to make a pitch for these lesser known novels. Added Upon has an undeniable place in our cultural vocabulary and deserves to have a continued place in Mormon literary canons. It also deserves to be mined for new usable tropes as Saturday’s Warrior homage to it doesn’t really do it justice. But we shouldn’t focus on it at the expense of these other texts, which is what has happened over the last one hundred years.

        Personally, I think we should all read Piney Ridge Cottage (1912) and The Story of Chester Lawrence (1913) to commemorate their centennial.

        AML book club anyone?

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          I wasn’t ever able to get a broad enough range of interest to do a global book club. But if you want to take a couple of months to run a book club on these books (either as a replacement for your regular column or in addition to it), I’d be game. Email me if you want to pursue it.

        • Th. says:

          .

          I’m in, if I can find epub versions.

          • Scott Hales says:

            Project Gutenberg has a good epub version of “Chester Lawrence,” and the Internet archive has a mostly-readable epub version of “Piney Ridge Cottage.”

          • Th. says:

            .

            Oh! Last I checked I could only find AU and D on Gutenberg. I hadn’t noticed the IA offered downloadable versions. #perceptive

  2. Wm says:

    Now I have a vision of the spirit of Nephi Anderson lurking behind Ryan McIlvaine and saying “First!”

  3. Wm says:

    Also: will someone please, please, please disable the stupid INK function. All it does is annoy those of use who want to comment and link back to Dawning of a Brighter Day. It does nothing to detract any would be intellectual property thieves or plagiarists or content scrapers.

    What concern does the AML have that the INK thing addresses?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>