I recently read one of the great novels of the "Lost Generation," Virginia Sorensen's A Little Lower than the Angels. I absolutely adore this novel.
Let me tell you something about me as a reader.
I understand the craft too well to enjoy novels as guilelessly as I may enjoy, say, a movie. I'm too aware of the how to simply enjoy the what. I see an excellent piece of humor or a fine execution of emotion and I don't have the big laugh or cry; instead I note the skill with which it was executed and keep reading.
And so when I say I saw the ending of A Little Lower from a ways off, it's not a boast or anything. I just couldn't help but to see it.
However, Sister Sorensen executes that ending so perfectly that I, sitting in the park watching my daughter play on a sunny day, let out an immediate sob and sat there weeping for a good ninety seconds.
I don't get that experience very often.
And so I crown this book not only excellent but perhaps the greatest Mormon novel I have ever read. I am grateful for the experience of meeting these people and witnessing their journey.
Part of what Virginia's so adept at is making every character in Nauvoo live. If a character gets more than a page, they come alive. And as she takes us through the Nauvoo years from swamp-draining to outwards exodus, we get to see plenty of such people even though we are focused on one family—one person even: Mercy Baker.
I don't want to delve into all the things the book does excellently, but I will say that historical characters like Joseph Smith and Eliza Snow and Brigham Young come alive on the page; we get to see polygamy in both its logic and its pain play out with exquisite believability; and the vignettes of children and neighbors are moving and powerful. The death of the kittens wrecked me and, when I was midparagraph with Mercy about to discover her husband had taken a second wife, I had to put the book down for several minutes because I couldn't bear to put her through the discovery. (You see what I mean! This novel took me for a ride!)
(Incidentally, I have a review forthcoming in Dialogue where I claim Noah Van Sciver's forthcoming Joseph Smith and the Mormons is the best novel written about Joseph Smith. I was a little nervous about this claim as I hadn't yet read A Little Lower. Ends up, Virginia wrote a terrific Joseph Smith novel but he dies halfway through and, although he threatens to take it over, charismatic as he is, it's never his novel. It's Mercy's.)
The one key exception to its fulness of characters is the evil gentiles lurking around the edges, eager to take the Mormons down. And so engaged are we in the insular world of Nauvoo that it is easy to miss that this violence and hate must reside in actual people. So thoroughly recreated was their fearful vision of the gentiles that I wrote a long marginal note at one point in which I completely accept this version of non-Mormons and use it to explain why our books never become bestsellers:
In these chapters, VS is
explaining why her excellent book
will not be a hit, will not be
remembered even now. ¶ Even
now when we seek to under-
stand the other, some
others are still safe to ignore,
to laugh at. ¶ Is it because
religion may be contagious?
Or some other reason?
I had fully bought into the they-hate-us paranoia that still exists in some quarters of my people. (And I can't help but to wonder if there is something to that. I have not been watching Under the Banner of Heaven, but all the scuttlebutt seems to suggest that Mormons-may-be-safely-othered is not a completely crazy notion even in 2022.)
The weird thing is, I bought into this theory as to why Mormon lit doesn't get broader national attention from the depiction of not-Mormons in a book that not-Mormons purchased and published and promoted and put out internationally!
The Signature reprint includes a foreword from Virginia Sorensen first-expert-then-friend Mary Lythgoe Bradford. She lays out the history of the novel and it's a beautiful story and, like other stories we know, includes strong feelings in Utah preventing many copies from being sold there.
(Although, apparently, the book was so popular that the Salt Lake City library had to rebind the books long after they left print. A task, alas, they have since abandoned.)
A Little Lower than the Angels sold a respectable 7800 for Knopf, largely outside Utah, and did well enough to let her publish about a half-dozen more Mormon-themed novels for adults (not to mention her greater success as a children's author. However. She apparently thought of herself as a poet first although, best I know, her poetry remains unavailable).
Later this month, the AML book club is hosting Mary and a discussion on A Little Lower (sadly, I cannot be there) and I anticipate a great outpouring of love for Virginia and her novel. We have come around, at least we in the literary community. And it's hard for me to imagine a Deseret Book-printed version not selling and finding an appreciative Mormon audience (though I have been wrong before).
I guess the real question, then, isn't who loves this novel (gentiles and Mormons alike have fallen for it) but who will not and why the won't even give it a chance.
A moment late in the novel:
An out-of-town gentile has purchased the Bakers' last remaining property for a pittance as they prepare to abandon their city. He sees a Baker daughter playing with her cat and offers to care for it if she leaves it behind. Young Betsy is surprised. "I didn't know whether gentiles liked cats or not," she tells him.
The man is a bit shook by the conversation and that evening tells his wife, "Funny thing, that girl with her cat—sort of made me think Mormons were folks, after all, folks like the rest of us, maybe."
This is the first time we've seen a gentile in a nonabusive moment. And it gave me the parallel thought.
I don't know when Mormons will stop being the butt of dumb jokes and melodrama. And I don't know when we will ourselves achieve the injunctions of charity. But I do know that art is part of the path. And this book trod it well.
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