Title: Standing on the Promises, Book Two: Bound for Canaan
Publisher: Zarahemla Press
Genre: Historical Fiction
Number of pages: 413
Bound for Canaan is the second volume in the newly revised and expanded editions of Margaret Young’s and Darius Gray’s Standing on the Promises series. It continues where the first volume left of, with the saints leaving Nauvoo and heading west after the death of Joseph Smith and ends two years before the completion of the Salt Lake Temple. As with the first volume, there’s no true overarching plot (except perhaps the overarching plot of the church’s own history), merely a series of anecdotes, of events that happen in roughly chronological order (as different characters receive focus, the narrative does occasionally move around in time). However, in every case, these tales are powerful – the kinds of tales that reveal the rich and diverse nature of our own history. Many of these tales will sound like the tales of the pioneers and early saints that we hear in church often: there are tales of healings, of death and the acceptance of the Lord’s will, of persecution, of trials overcome, of people who leave the church due to worldly concerns, and more. The main difference is that these tales concern figures our correlated manuals rarely (if ever) mention (and I don’t mean to use “correlated” in a negative way here. I actually tend to defend church correlation). Many of these tales deserve to find their way into the standard narrative of the church.
In addition to the expansion and clarification and revelation of relatively unknown parts of our history, these tales are also remarkable for the amount of charity they contain, despite the often difficult subject matter.
These tales are clearly and consistently infused with charity. The narrative voice (implied, but not outright stated, to be the same narrator as the first volume, a fictionalized descendent of Jane Manning James) clearly cares for and sees the best in nearly all the characters, black or white, slave or even slaveholder.
It would have been fairly easy, and likely not all that controversial, to play up the racism, take the early saints and their leaders to task for their racism and tolerance of slaveholders (for example, there is some discussion of how slaveholders tithed their slaves labors to the church). However, while the narrative does not make excuses or turn racist sinners into canonized saints, an air of charity and forgiveness surrounds every description of every action.
For example, one chapter deals with Elijah Able meeting with Brigham Young. Young tells Abel that he cannot enter the temple and seems surprised that Abel was ordained to the priesthood. Young talks of the curse of Cain and otherwise cannot resolve Abel’s concerns. However, Young actually comes across as friendly, amicable, and wearily resigned to a policy he doesn’t quite understand himself:
Brigham sat straighter and spoke loud. “I regret that most of your race have known ill treatment. Shame on those who have rendered it. They will be judged by a just God.” His voice became softer. “But Elijah,” he said, leaning across his desk “you know the burden your race carries by divine decree . . . I appreciate your feelings. Surely all of mankind would like God’s blessing. You understand this better than most. And you must understand that it is not mine to give.”
Elijah answered reverently, “God saw me fit for the priesthood. Why would he take me halfway and not the whole way?”
Once more, Brigham sighed. “I cannot answer that, and we may not be able to settle that matter to your satisfaction . . . Elijah that time will come when your people will have the privileges of all we have and more.”
I cut a few parts of the quote out (hence the ellipses), and more occurs before and after (the conversation takes up an entire chapter of several pages), but these excerpts should give an idea of how the narrator treats what would look like to modern eyes as blatantly racist actions. The narrator doesn’t soften the blow so much as see all the participants as fully human, with weaknesses and strengths.
Any issues I have with the narrative come from personal preferences. As with the first volume, I still do not like that each chapter ends with notes on the actual history, detailing what in each chapter is speculation and what comes from actual records – I would have preferred this information in an appendix. In this volume, I noted an additional problem with this approach – repetition. Often a speech or incident would occur in the chapter, only to have it repeated nearly word for word in the endnotes to that chapter.
Additionally, I would have preferred some more detailing of Green Flake’s (a slave whose labor was tithed to the church) journey with the saints to Utah. In this book, he heads west with Young, basically vanishes from the narrative, and appears again when returning from that journey. Details of what he did or might have done in helping the pioneers clear trails and survive the trek are missing. Of course, this likely comes from my own preference for tales of the treks west, whereas Young and Gray have decided, for whatever reason, to focus on before and after the treks.
But those are minor complaints based mostly on personal likes and dislikes that do not lessen the power and charity of these stories. Hopefully these tales will gain wider recognition and become some of the standard tales told in Sunday school, pioneer day firesides, and other events.