Number of pages: 352
Reviewed by Ivan Wolfe for the Association for Mormon Letters
I’m not sure what I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said when it first came out. It’s simply amazing, tender, warm, joyful, realistic, intimate – and dozens of other adjectives I could list.
When this book first came out, it was one of Deseret Book’s finest moments. Now that the books are out of print there, Zarahemla has stepped up and re-issued them in an expanded form. There’s no hint that these are “director’s cuts” that include parts editors at Deseret Books may have cut – instead, more historical information and other stories have come to light, and so Young and Gray have added more in order to do justice to the full story of “black Mormon pioneers.”
In this first volume, that means there are a few more names, a few more incidents, but nothing major (I suspect the next two volumes may contain more new material). I haven’t done a line by line comparison, so I don’t know if there are any other additions (such as adding in potentially disturbing material Deseret Book may have balked at).
However, the story itself remains marvelously told. The narrative voice chosen by Young and Gray (the narrator is herself a fictional character, identified as a great granddaughter of one of the main protagonists, Jane Manning James) is caring and non-judgmental. Even when some white Mormons behave in racist and uncaring ways, the narrator has a more resigned, sad and weary tone, rather than an angry, hurt and disgusted one. The narrative voice wants to tell you stories, not pass judgments – choosing charity over contention in all cases, and this makes the narrative gentle and easy.
Not that the events are all that easy, though nothing here can be taken as challenging the church in any way. The book is remarkably faithful, always assuming the truth of the Church and never questioning the basic doctrines. Prayers are answered, miracles are taken at face value, and Joseph Smith comes across as amicable and friendly. Events that might seem somewhat challenging to readers unaware of many details regarding early church history (women giving blessings, for example) are treated in a passing manner, rather than made prominent. The most challenging aspects of this book deal with the flawed nature of early Saints and how even those chosen by God couldn’t quite escape the racism of the societies they inhabited – even there, the narrative emphasizes charity and forgiveness.
I only have two reservations about the novel, and both are a matter of personal taste. The first is that too many of the events seem to be a “greatest hits” of the era, even when it stretches credulity (for example, Elijah Abel meeting the head of the Underground Railroad, or many famous quotes from early church history just happening to be said within earshot of the protagonists). However, the narrative voice covers for some of that, as it’s clear the narrator is somewhat jumbling various tales together, and so while she may get the essence of the stories right, the occasional mixing of a few stories can be forgiven.
The second has to do with the format. Each chapter ends with historical notes, explaining what was invented in each chapter, what was based on actual records (though Young and Gray mostly rely on secondary and tertiary sources), and even occasionally quote from the actual oral histories of those involved. To me, this interrupts the narrative flow and dilutes the power of the narrative voice. I personally would have preferred to see the notes in appendices. However, I can understand the decision, as the intended audience (mostly a faithful Mormon readership) can be very concerned about accurately (if faithfully) representing “what actually happened.” Putting the notes at the end of each chapter is a way to ameliorate those concerns immediately, so while I don’t like it, I can live with it. (I do wonder at their choice to attribute most of the hymn titles to a 1976 Protestant hymnal, when many of the hymn titles are found in LDS hymn volumes as well).
Often, it’s not so much the stories we have, but how we tell those tales. Young and Gray have created marvelous, faithful narratives that will hopefully allow for these tales to spread and become part of the general narrative of Mormonism.