Fall 1993, Volume 10.3
Critical Essay


Masks and Music: Recent Fiction by Mormon Women Writers

In 1974 when Richard H. Cracroft and Neal E. Lambert published their landmark anthology, A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints, they clearly made a conscientious effort to include women authors. Of the ninety-seven authors, twenty-nine (29.9 percent) are women, and, of the 130 selections, 43 (33 percent) were authored by women. Of the ten genres, women are represented in sevenall but discourses, the essay, and drama.

As the twentieth anniversary of the publication of that volume approaches, what can be said about the place and the contributions of Mormon women in recent fiction? Certainly the larger social currents of feminism have partially changed the deep channels in which Mormon currents also run. Serious educational, professional, and creative achievements are more possible and more accepted for Mormon women. Even as the desire for more balanced achievements in instrumental aspects of life draw women into wider spheres, economic realities simultaneously are driving women, including Mormon mothers, into the workplace. Utah has the highest percentage in the nation of working women with children under age eighteen. At the same time, Mormon male leadership has poured increasing efforts into empedestaling Mormon motherhood, warning women away from the workplace lest they fail in their primary mission of motherhood (Benson; Scott 1993; cf. Wilcox).

Such a prescriptive role definition constricts married Mormon women writers with children in three ways: First, its authoritative mode contains the implicit message that women are not free to choose; rather authoritative males have the power and the right to make decisions for them. Second, if motherhood is a woman's important task, then it is perilously easy to conclude that it is her only important task; the automatic competition for time that a demanding art like writing requires is seen as dangerous to her children. And third, while such a position allows "hobby" or "housewife" writing in left-over or squeezed-out hours of time, it discourages the corollary professional activitiessuch as teaching on a college levelthat most frequently support writers.

Thus, Mormon women writing today who want to reach other Mormon women through their fiction may face a dilemma, which, oversimplified for clarity, may be posed as follows: Will a Mormon woman writer assume the mask of the "good" woman, writing to support the authorized view of LDS women and their role, or will she dance to the rhythm that she hears drumming in her own life, even if that leaves her out of step with her sisters?

Many Mormon women writers feel no conflict. The audience for Mormon fiction increased dramatically during the 1970s and 1980s, and a significant partperhaps even the majority of that audienceis women who would be reading the serialized fiction of the Relief Society Magazine, if it were still being published. They juggle child-care and writing until the most arduous years of child-rearing are over, negotiate ad-hoc childcare arrangements, or work out new accommodations with their partners.

Others, while choosing equally orthodox lifestyles and finding writing time in the same way, find their fiction leading them to unorthodox themes, characters, and styles, and professions. Still other Mormon women writers choose a specifically non-Mormon audience. Others may continue to write to Mormons and for Mormons while refusing both the safety and the constrictions of orthodoxy.

However, most serious fiction acknowledges the dissonance between Mormon role prescriptions and realities, both in the modes and characters of the fictional creation and also in finding an audience. This dilemma has deep historic roots. The most distinguished writers of Mormonism during the twentieth century have had to step outside their own culture or suffer marginalization within it, asserting their voice against a drumbeat that sometimes seems deafening to become, in Linda Sillitoe's graceful phrase, "Upstream Swimmers" or, in Edward Geary's evocative description, "Mormondom's Lost Generation." That generation of writers who came to maturity after World War II broke what critic Bruce W. Jorgensen identified as

an apparent death of reprintable Mormon literature between 1900 and 1940, an interval within which the editors of A Believing People present us with no examples of fiction or poetry. Assuming that they sought and did not find, how do we examine the Great Gap? Perhaps the literary developments of the 1880s, the 1890s, and especially the 1920s could not be assimilated by Mormon writers still committed to didacticism and to waning literary fashions. (Digging 56)

This Great Gap also meant that the first reaction of the Mormon reading public responded, not with appreciation but with xenophobia. Take, for example, Virginia Sorensen and Maurine Whipple, two stellar talents who died within months of each other, Sorensen in December 1991 and Whipple in April 1992. Sorensen left Mormon country early in her career, divorced her Mormon husband after a long and grueling marriage, then married and lived happily with Alec Waugh, converting to Anglicanism. Among her splendid books are the semi-autobiographical book of essays about Utah, Where Nothing Is Long Ago (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955), and such powerful novels of women struggling to define themselves in or outside of their community as The Morning and the Evening (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949). Sorensen's status within Mormonism can be marked by the fact that she has received a steadily swelling amount of critical attention. The 1988-92 Annual of the Association for Mormon Letters (forthcoming) contains no fewer than nine.

In contrast, Maurine Whipple wrote a single sunburst of a novel, the still-unsurpassed Giant Joshua (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1945), which tells the story of the founding of St. George through the eyes of one of the most haunting and enchanting of all Mormon heroines, Clorinda McIntyre. Whipple never married, never converted to another church, and never permanently left St. George; but she also never wrote another novel or published very much besides magazine articles about Utah. She wrote steadily, even compulsively, but the two volumes which would have made The Giant Joshua into a three-generation trilogy remained unfinished at her death, as did two more novels and more than two dozen short stories (Hale and Anderson forthcoming; see also Jorgensen 1978 and two articles in the 1988-92 Annual of the Association for Mormon Letters, forthcoming). Her novel, unlike those of Sorensen, at least has remained in print, accessible to a current generation of readers.

Other Mormon women authors of merit from this time include Ardeth Kennelly, particularly her fine novel of polygamy, The Peaceable Kingdom (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), with its strong, salty narrator, Linnea. Unfortunately, Kennelly has not received the critical attention her works merit, but a "rediscovery" is almost certain to occur in the wake of increased attention to her contemporaries, Sorensen and Whipple.

For traditional Mormon women, reading authors like Sorensen, Whipple, and Kennelly was a secret act of defiance, an admittedly unorthodox act. The risk-taking of such a venture has, happily, diminished during the 1970s and 1980s. And, as might be expected, Mormon women writing fiction, though still fewer in number than might be hoped, are flourishing. Many deserve sustained scrutiny, but space limitations compel a focus on primarily three whose recent work is exciting and promising, speaking directly (though not exclusively) to Mormon women's experience, in distinctive voices, the masks of which are the multi-faceted voices of imagination: Phyllis Barber, Margaret Blair Young, and Linda Sillitoe. All of these women are what I would call insider/outsiders. They write fluently and skilfully, as Mormons, to audiences both within and outside of Mormonism, moving with ease and grace across both psychological and technical boundaries in their writing. Insider/insider fiction, in contrast, is home literature, its whole world encompassed by Mormon myths, premises, and conclusions. Outsider/insider fiction occurs when writers, whether Mormon or frankly other, use the Mormon West as the regional and cultural settings for their stories. Characters can occupy a range of positions on the Mormon spectrum, from casual to obsessed, but for none of them is Mormonism primarily a faith. Rather, it is a phenomenon, like politics or socio-economic status. Two respected outsider/insider writers are Pauline Mortensen, who lives in Utah Valley, and Judith Freeman of Los Angeles.

Insider/outsider fiction, in my opinion, represents the trickiest balance, the most demanding standards, and the highest stakes. Mormonism may be the setting, and even the subject, but the author's focus is character and the writing more complex than cautionary. The author writes from inside Mormonism in a way that makes it intelligible to "outsiders" without simultaneously making it seem alien to insider Mormons. As a reader whose consciousness is shaped by my Mormonness, this insider/outsider boundary is one I must cross daily as a reader. I hope I do it skillfully and graciouslynot refusing to take seriously or accord full attention to those creative worlds I approach as an outsider, and appreciating the insiders to those worlds who take the trouble to welcome me hospitably and smooth my path. But there is a particular and particularistic quality to my attention when the music and the dance are also mine, when I recognize the landscape. Barber, Young, and Sillitoe have created new yet utterly indigenous landscapes for me, have demonstrated their ability to dance their fictions to complex rhythms, and, consequently, have invited me deeper and further into fictional realms than I might otherwise go.

For example, most of Phyllis Barber's short stories, published in The School of Love (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990), are not explicitly Mormon. Most of them are experimental, highly impressionistic, symbols, dreams, and fragments of nightmares. "Oh, Say, Can You See?," a story told from the point of view of ten-year-old Irene, ironically juxtaposes the heroic achievement of Boulder Dam and the misplaced pride of Nevadans in above-ground atomic tests conducted after World War II, thus creating what may well be the ultimate expression of downwinders' experience in Southern Utah as well.

The same setting and the same historical events flash into strong and steady focus in Barber's novel, And The Desert Shall Blossom (Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 1991/Signature Books, 1993). Evocative but not elusive, it describes the pulsating magnet that Boulder Dam represented, drawing the dreamers and the desperate from all over the United States. Among them are Alf and Esther, an economically marginalized Mormon family. Esther is introduced as "a smudge. She'd lost sharp definition in this heat, almost like she was a mirage of a wife. . . . Her eyes were dabs of regret and her face and arms were bloated with resignation" (5-6). Her identity lies in the pasta well-defined place in a strongly woven, very Mormon clan in Brigham City, "where she is the pretty one who sings." Now she is displaced geographically and psychologically. The newly invented city of Boulder grinds away at the family like the hot desert wind with its abrasive, constant grit. It erodes the bonds in their nuclear family, setting the two sons and three daughters adrift from each other and from their parents, stranding Alf somewhere between the orthodox Mormonism that never fit him securely and the possibility of petty power that makes him dip, unsuccessfully, into criminality and adultery.

But it is Esther who is the chief casualty. Her body is a scarred memento of a brilliant public performance in which her skirt caught fire; her soul is scarred by impossibly high Mormon standards, symbolized for her by the temple garments she wears despite the relentless, suffocating heat. She denies her own dream of "a world away from this one where no God was peering down at her [as she and Alf make love], a world where she could scream and bite into Alf's flesh, where she could dance naked across the room with billowing silk scarves and her imperfect skin. . . . The garments and the [scarred] skin. Two shields to help her hold to God's word" (51).

She tries to recreate her dream of a home, but the lack of water makes her give up her dreams of flowers and apricot trees. A flurry of determination makes her spearhead a successful movement to establish schools for the children, but her interest is distracted. She has a moment of glory, singing "Moonlight and Roses" for a dance (122). But the Gentile world frightens her:

Esther's inner world became more hidden and tenuous as her tether stretched farther from Brigham [City], farther away from those who understood her spiritual sensibility. . . . She felt like invisible ink, only perceptible to those who knew about the Urim and Thummimthe seerstones that aided Joseph Smith when he translated the Book of Mormon from gold plates. She felt herself disintegrating, crumbling like an Egyptian mystery on brittle papyrus. Thus reduced, she forgot her faith that had never failed her when she was a young girl walking the unpaved streets of Brigham City, staring up at umbrellas of peach blossoms, and wiggling her toes in cold irrigation ditches. (129)

Not only is this extraordinarily good writing, bringing Esther into sharp-edged focus even as her personality slips toward insanity, but it shows Barber as a gifted interpreter of Mormonism as an insideras someone for whom the signs, symbols, and shibboleths of Mormonism make a fabric of wholeness and coherence. She handles them neither pietistically nor simplistically, her dance to their rhythms forming a coherent translation both to insiders and to outsiders.

Also an insider/outsider is Margaret Blair Young, a gifted and prolific author who has published three books in two years. House without Walls (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), written in an understated style reminiscent of Chaim Potok, follows the fortunes of a German Jewish family. Sarah, an unsubmissive and untraditional girl, is spiritually and emotionally tough enough to become a Mormon, then is brutally redefined as Jewish by the Nazis, but survives to bear a son (Isaac) to her rabbi husband (Abraham). Isaac, in a parallel encounter with Mormonism, finds an even deeper faith and returns to Germany as a missionary. It is an emotionally intense novel that asserts, as a nonnegotiable premise, the reality of revelation, grace, and miracles.

These are insider themes, yet Young's versatility extends far beyond the predictable. Her collection of ten short stories, Elegies and Love Songs, are not explicitly Mormon; most of them are not even tangentially Mormon. But they, like Barber's School of Love, explore patterns of relationships in sophisticated, allusive shapes that define love linked with death.

A powerful and cosmopolitan style, linked with solidly Mormon themes, unite in Young's ironically titled third book, Salvador (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1992). Through the consciousness of Julie, a woman shredded from an abrasive divorce, we meet her manic mother, Emmie, who made home "a haven of silliness" and stemmed from a family of "the best dreamers and idealists and religious fanatics this side of California" (2). Julie drives with her parents (her father is unrelentingly skeptical and, at his own request, an excommunicate) to Salvador where she stays with her mother's brother, Johnny. Johnny, a zealot and a spellbinder, had stayed on after his own youthful mission, married a convert, and was working toward establishing his own vision of the city of Zarahemla.

Luisa, Johnny's fragile saintly wife, a vision of white, gardenias, and fireflies, is pregnant with twins and progresses toward their birth and her own death in a ceremonial pageant that combines murder and love, power and polygamy, spiritual lust and irresistible comedy. It's something of a tour de force, held together by Julie's wry, hungry, hoping voice:

Johnny told me about Primitivo Santos, to whom an angel had appeared. The guy wore his hair long now, because that's how the angel had worn his.

I pictured the kind of long hair Mormon artists portray: gleamingjust-brushed perfection. . . . Mormon angels are not hippies; in order to get past the Correlation Committee they have to be conservative and well-groomed. Nonetheless, they transcend time and culture and make implicit statements about barber shops in heaven.

Primitivo's angel would not have made it past Correlation. Primitivo . . . stood before an adobe shack like a monument to Einstein after a tough day and no comb. His arms slowly rose as Johnny parked. Primitivo, it seemed, was conducting the weather. (24)

Linda Sillitoe's work is a consistent pleasurepolished, professional, and dangerous. Deep-rooted in Mormonism and flowering in feminist themes, it creates a gallery of vivid and fully realized women who negotiate their lives, their identities, and their powers within the network of family relationships. In Sideways to the Sun (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), Megan, an appealing and vulnerable woman, wakes up one morning, pregnant with her fifth child, to discover that her conscientious, devout, and devoted husband has disappeared with the car. The days turn into weeks, then months. Is he dead? Has he deserted her?

She pulls her strength together to find a way to support herself and the children. She copes and copes and copes. And then, when an incredible chance takes her to Montezuma Creek and she sees Richard, his arm around a young and lovely pregnant Navajo woman, a baby who would have the age of her own miscarried child toddling near them, she acts with daring and sureness:

The baby held out her arms. In one motion, Megan lifted her and stood, her eyes checking to see that Richard and the woman had not turned back. Still smiling, she stepped back by the tree, ready to shrug and speak to any onlooker. . . . Her free hand snatched the yellow rosette from the baby's hair and put it in her jeans pocket. . . .

She walked swiftly, Elinor [her second daughter] at her side, jiggling the baby as if they played a game. She opened the car door and plopped the baby on Elinor's lap. . . .

She didn't speak until they reached the highway. . . .

"Elinor," she said then, "I haven't the faintest idea how to explain this to you."

Two pairs of eyes, one black and one pale blue, looked at her. "Explain what?" Elinor said. "I know what you're doing. You're bringing him home."

. . . Megan . . . felt invincible. Her humiliation, her rejection, her disgrace, her stigma had been mobilized into action. A black-eyed baby was bringing her justice after all. (220-21)

It is, of course, not so simple. Sillitoe's sense of craft, care, and drama does not desert her for the easy melodrama of a sentimental ending. Richard's reluctant meeting with Megan and his children is a superb achievement, satisfying, understated, and deft.

Sillitoe's collection of eleven stories, Windows on the Sea: And Other Stories (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), carries within it the same satisfying wellspring of artistic achievement. Like Sideways to the Sun, most of these stories explore dimensions of identity for Mormon women testing themselves, sometimes tentatively, sometimes violently, against the limitations of their society, their family obligations, and even against their own sanity.

The music and the masks of Mormon fiction by contemporary women writers are strong, seductive, and evocative. If they are sweet, it is with honey robbed from the nests of wild bees, not with the sticky sugar of sentimentality. The ease with which they move between modes and forms, creating the endless masks and mirrors of narration, dancing the music of Mormonism in new ways is a promise for the future. They sing for me. I dance with them.



Anderson, Lavina Fielding. "Making the `Good' Good for Something: A Direction for Mormon Literature," Mormon Letters Annual: 1984. Salt Lake City: Association for Mormon Letters, 1985. 150-64.

---. "Review Essay: Insider/Outsider Fiction." Utah Humanities Council, Spring 1992: 4-6.

Benson, Ezra Taft. "To the Mothers in Zion," address given at a Fireside for Parents by President Ezra Taft Benson . . . on 22 February 1987." Pamphlet. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1987.

Carson, Pamela Gillie, and Lavina Fielding Anderson. "Mormon Mushies: The Wonderful World of the Sugar-Coated." Sunstone Review, July 1982: 30-32, and "Mormon Mushies: Thrills and Spills in the Mormon Adventure Novel," ibid., August 1982: 23-24, 35.

Cracroft, Richard H., and Neal E. Lambert, eds. A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1974.

England, Eugene. "The Dawning of a Brighter Day: Mormon Literature after 150 Years." Brigham Young University Studies 22.2 (Spring 1982): 131-60.

---. "Great Books or True Religion." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 9.4 (1974): 36-49

England, England, and Lavina Fielding Anderson, eds. Mormon Literary Criticism (title tentative). Salt Lake City: Signature Books, forthcoming.

Faulconer, James E. "Alternative to Traditional Criticism." Proceedings of the Symposia of the Association for Mormon Letters, 1979-82. Salt Lake City: Association for Mormon Letters, 1983. 111-24.

Geary, Edward. "The Poetics of Provincialism: Mormon Regional Fiction." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 11.2 (1978): 15-24.

Hart, Edward L. "Writing: The Most Hazardous Craft." Mormon Letters Annual: 1987. Salt Lake City: Association for Mormon Letters, 1987. 8-11.

Jorgensen, Bruce W. "Digging the Foundation: Making and Reading Mormon Literature." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 9.4 (Winter 1974): 50-61.

---. "`Herself Moving Beside Herself, Out there Alone': The Shape of Mormon Belief in Virginia Sorensen's The Evening and the Morning." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13.3 (Fall 1980): 43-60.

Geary, Edward L. "Mormondom's Lost Generation: The Novelists of the 1940s." Brigham Young University Studies 18.1 (1977): 89-98.

Scott, Richard G. "The Power of Correct Principles," 15, 8-9; photocopy of typescript in my possession, forthcoming in The Ensign, May 1993.

Sillitoe, Linda. "The Upstream Swimmers: Female Protagonists in Mormon Novels." Sunstone 4.5-6 (1979): 52-58.

Wilcox, Linda P. "Crying `Change' in a Permanent World: Contemporary Mormon Women on Motherhood." Mormon Letters Annual: 1984. Salt Lake City: Association for Mormon Letters, 1985, 22-35.

The issue of the Association for Mormon Letter's Annual: 1988-92 (forthcoming as of May 1993) contains several important philosophical and critical essays: "To Tell and Hear Stories: Let the Stranger Say" by Bruce W. Jorgensen; "Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature" by Richard H. Cracroft; "Telling It Slant: Aiming for Truth in Contemporary Mormon Literature" by William Mulder; "Towards a Mormon Criticism: Should We Ask, `Is This Mormon Literature?'" by Gideon O. Burton; "`Though Like the Wanderer': Outside the Group in Mormon Short Fiction" by Derk Michael Koldewyn; "Reading Mormon Stories: An Ethical Dilemma?" by Neal W. Kramer; and "Toward a Theory of Literary Value: The Necessity of Bearing Direct Personal Testimony" by Harlow Soderborg Clark.

Suggested Creative Readings

Brown, Marilyn. Thorns of the Sun. American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 1992.

---. Shadows of Angels. (forthcoming).

England, Eugene, ed. Bright Angels and Familiars: Contemporary Mormon Stories. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992.

---, and Dennis Clark, eds. Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989.

Evans, Kathy. Imagination Comes to Breakfast. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992.

Freeman, Judith. The Chinchilla Farm. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.

---. Family Attractions: Stories. New York: Viking, 1988.

---. Set for Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.

Hale, Veda Tebbs, and Lavina Fielding Anderson, eds. Maurine Whipple: Lost Works. Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, forthcoming.

Kump, Eileen Gibbons. Bread and Milk and Other Stories. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1979.

Lambert, Neal E., and Richard H. Cracroft, eds. 22 Young Mormon Writers. Provo, Utah: Communications Workshop, 1975.

Mortensen, Pauline. Back before the World Turned Nasty. Fayette: University of Arkansas Press, 1989.

Pearson, Carol Lynn. Women I Have Known and Been. Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1992.

Peterson, Levi S., ed. Greening Wheat: Fifteen Mormon Short Stories. Midvale, Utah: Orion Books, 1983.

Thayer, Donlu. In the Mind's Eye. Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1992.

Thayne, Emma Lou. Things Happen. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991.