Monday, February 25, 2008

Review: Mormon Last Days Stories

I've been doing some Mormon last-days story reading, and I just finished reading The Great Gathering (Standing in Holy Places, Book One) by Chad Daybell.

Bottom line: The book didn't work well for me as literature, but it did work as a teaching tool.

First, the literature side. The book is quite short but still covers a lot of plot and characters. The reason it's short is that it's quite sketchy; it reads more like a summary of a plot that is only just starting to get fleshed out than as a fully developed novel. While quite readable, the style is very plain, and there's just something flat about nearly all the characters, settings, and plot points, with very little sensory detail or exploration of the characters' inner lives to bring the story to life.

The author takes a very low-key approach to emotions, so even when rather amazing things happen, the response of the characters is quite muted and perfunctory. Characters such as Satan and one of the Three Nephites don't come to life in a satisfying way, and the Mormons are all pretty bland and predictable as well. I don't know if the author was too hurried or worried about being too graphic or what.... The one character who gave me some glimmers of interest was Tad, a guy with some real human flaws and angst and the book's only real interesting character arc.

As far as plausibility, this is the last days and so lots of very wild stuff happens, from earthquakes and hailstones to nationwide chip implantations and invasion by a coalition of Russia, China, and Islam. I think the author did a pretty good job with lots of it, but there are places that stretch one's credulity or don't seem fully thought out. Still, I felt that a fair bit of creative imagination went into it, and I found myself reading with interest to see what would happen next, even though much of it comes across in mere summary form instead of being fully dramatized. I believe the author took care to follow actual scriptures and prophecies, and I enjoyed learning about some of those through the form of a reasonably engaging story.

So yes, the book did overall work pretty well for me as a teaching tool that reminded me of possible last days scenarios, alerted me to bad trends in society and bad attitudes among Mormons, and made me question my own level of obedience and conformity. In recent months,
home teaching has been driving me batty because it seems to come so often and feels like a big chore that interrupts a precious day off, but yesterday after finishing Daybell's book I found myself doing my home teaching a little more willingly, because I don't want to turn out like Tad and maintain a mindset that makes me miss getting onto the ark. So if the author had a didactic purpose, which I'm sure he did, he managed to break through my worldly cynicism and have a positive spiritual effect on me as a fellow Mormon, probably much more so than if I'd heard him give a sacrament meeting talk about signs of the times or whatever.

I will definitely pick up the sequel, because I'm curious to see where the author takes it next and because, frankly, for me it's one of those books you read to reassure yourself that you can write something at least as good, if not better in some ways (OK, I admit that one of the reasons I picked up the book is that right now I'm at a point of insecurity and hesitation about my own last-days novel project). However, if lots of other Mormon fiction is like this Daybell novel, I'm not interested. One of the last Deseret/Covenant/Cedar Fort-mode novels I read, Jeff Call's Mormonville, had a lot of the same limitations, and in that case it felt like a waste of my time because it didn't even bother to teach me anything new or interesting, let alone stand as satisfying literature.

Another Mormon last days book I've read is Linda Adams's Prodigal Journey, which I found to be a big overstuffed fruit cake of a book, sort of the opposite problem of Daybell's over-minimized approach but still strangely compelling to keep reading. I read its sequel, Refining Fire, in prepublication manuscript form, and if I remember right it sort of devolves into more of a romance than a last-days story, but I admit it's been a long time since I read it.

And I recently read Orson Scott Card's Folk of the Fringe, which has some good writing and storytelling in it, but it didn't really capture my imagination like I'd hoped as far as the last-days setting, which is really mostly just a backdrop for exploring some characters and situations that could have been treated equally well in any other number of possible settings. The one story with a really interesting premise, in which the boys dive into the submerged Salt Lake Temple, suffered from plausibility problems, I found. I was reading Jessica Draper's novel Hunting Gideon at the same time, and I honestly found that Jessica's book engaged my imagination and came to life better for me than the Card book.

Next I'm going to read Stephanie Black's The Believer and then probably Wendie Edwards's Millennial Glory I: Hidden Light. But I may need to squeeze another Updike in between there to cleanse my literary palette...

Any other Mormon last-days stories I definitely ought to check out?

No comments: