[Yes, this is the 3rd review M* has done of this book. You should read the review anyway.]
When I was a kid, I read a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories that was mostly unabridged, and I have been hooked on Holmes ever since. However, there was one small bit of abridgment that I overlooked at the time (looking back at the book – my mom still has it – there was a footnote mentioning this) where the “Mormon” parts of A Study in Scarlet were taken out, with the reasoning that those chapters didn’t deal with Holmes.
Fast forward a decade and a half (give or take a few years), and I’m on a mission for the LDS (Mormon) church. When out looking for people to teach, suddenly everyone is asking us about The Avenging Angel and Danites, saying things like “you guys have one whacked out history, dudes!” The one time I broke mission rules (I was a pretty strait-laced, rule keeping guy, which often caused massive amounts of conflicts with my companions, especially since the president would deliberately give me slacker, disobedient companions so I could “whip them into shape” – ugh, not fun; anyway back to the review . . .) was watching that movie, just so I could see what everyone was talking about.
Why do I mention these? Well, we can see the literary cousins and ancestors of these portrayals – Dangerous Danites murdering apostates with impunity, Secret Rites in spooky caverns, Lustful Men forcing nubile women to be their polygamist wives – in the tales contained in this wonderful, interesting, and above all fun collection Dime Novel Mormons (edited by Michael Austin and Ardis E. Parshall).
When I finally did read the “Mormon” sections of A Study in Scarlet and watch The Avenging Angel (with Charlton Heston as Brigham Young!), my initial reactions were “how dare they portray Mormons in these ways!” – but after some thought, my second reaction was “these tales are quite entertaining, and if the villains weren’t Mormons but some other secretive cult (real or imagined), I would probably love them.”
The four “dime novels” in this collection are entertaining and historically valuable portrayals of how Mormons appeared in late 19th and early 20th century popular literature. A concise and entertaining introduction from the editors discusses the history and impact of dime novels and their portrayals of Mormons, as well as how these 4 specific novels fit in the overall milieu.
Yes, the portrayals of Mormons bare only the most tenuous connection to reality and actual Mormon history/practice, but if you can overlook that, they are amazingly fun and entertaining. The prose is occasionally clunky (but overall very competent, even highly literate in places) but the tales move quickly with cliffhangers and twists in all the right places.
I can watch movies and TV shows with Americans as the bad guys, or men, or college instructors, or whatever other “tribes” I may belong to, so I figure I can do the same with these texts. Since these stereotypes still exist today (as seen in quite a bit of pop culture), often existing side by side with other Mormon stereotypes (such as in the episode of Supergirl where Cat Grant states something like “someone that nice is either a superhero or a Mormon”), it’s useful to see these clichéd portrayals in their early forms, just to see how much (and how little) has actually changed.