Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The difference a vision can make: Zoe Murdock's Torn by God

God is an interesting character. Attracting His attention isn't always a good thing, and hearing from Him directly can be a real problem -- especially if you're not sure precisely what He said.

Zoe Murdock's novel Torn by God (H.O.T. Press) opens with a terrifying vision. More precisely, a young girl has the bizarre experience of watching her father wade out into a raging river where a pillar of light descends upon him. He returns, certain that it was a message from on high. From that moment forward, nothing on Earth is as important to him as discovering (and carrying out) God's special plan for him.

Naturally the father (Brother Sterling) starts to dig deeply into the roots of his own faith tradition. Being a Mormon, Brother Sterling centers his search around the teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. This search leads him to old doctrines like polygamy and the "Law of Consecration" (signing over your belongings to be distributed by the church). He drags his family (not literally kicking and screaming, but almost) into the bosom of the local independent Mormon fundamentalist group. The resulting emotional and financial hardships are made all the more painful by the constant realization that everything could so easily go back to normal if only Brother Sterling could forget about his vision and cut the crazy out of their lives.

Sister Sterling's role is particularly disturbing and frustrating. As it became increasingly clear that the family was in serious trouble, I kept feeling like -- no matter how much you love him -- there comes a point where you say to your husband "I can't just keep waiting for you to go back to normal, I have to take action to get myself and my children into a safe and sane situation." But the problem is that Sister Sterling had been brought up to be a meek and submissive wife. She takes her temple covenants (to obey her husband) very seriously. When he uses the words of the Mormon prophets, when he compares her to Emma Smith (wife of the prophet Joseph, who hated polygamy but stood by her husband), and when he tells her that their family's hardships are caused by her selfish unwillingness to follow him whole-heartedly, she wavers and can't tell whether or not to believe him. I like to think a modern Mormon woman would be more independent and resourceful, but this novel was set in small-town Utah during the prophetic tenure of David O. McKay (1950's-60's).

This story illustrates a bit of how Mormon fundamentalism feeds off of mainstream Mormonism. Part of the connection is doctrinal, since studying the writings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young can lead a Mormon believer to conclude that the fundamentalists are right. But there are also social factors that come into play. Sister Sterling avoids seeking help from her Mormon neighbors because she (justifiably) fears that her husband will be excommunicated for affiliating with the polygamists. She also refuses help from "gentiles" because she doesn't trust them. Then, once the rumors start to spread around town (about the Sterlings' fundamentalist leanings), they're shunned and Brother Sterling's carpentry business dries up, leaving the family with no one to turn to except the fundamentalists. And Mormons are brought up to believe that "persecution" is a sign that you're doing the Lord's work -- so the Mormon fundamentalists seem all the more right because those guys are really persecuted.

However, all of this theology is a bit of a sideline to what I think is the real strength of this novel. The author, Zoe Murdock, weaves description and action into incredibly vivid and memorable scenes. She shows how confused and upset the children are by giving them realistic immature behavior. The novel is crafted throughout with the kind of rich detail that brings the story to life.

I highly recommend this book for both Mormon and non-Mormon readers.


Anonymous said...

Looks like an interesting book. I'm not sure I'd be able to read it without yelling at some of the characters, though. (I sometimes get a little too engrossed in my literature).

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Chaplain!!!

Yeah, it's definitely that kind of book -- a good story, but frustrating to see people making terrible choices.

Unknown said...

Hi CL,

I read your article over at Main Street Plaza with great interest. Thank you for providing that list with your comments and insight. It makes me want to read them all.

You are absolutely right when you say that my novel, Torn by God reads as anti-FLDS. I worry about that. I am not anti-FLDS, per se, but while I was writing my Brother Reuben character came to represent the type of person who sets himself up as an interpreter for God and uses that position in a self-serving way. I think that sort of thing can happen in any environment where one person is held up as the authority on God. It is particularly insidious when the followers live in an enclosed environment where they have little opportunity to see outside their box. I guess what I am saying is that a person with the power of a Brother Reuben can use their position in evil ways, or they can try to lead their followers an altruistic way. With that in mind, I tend to keep my eye on all religious leaders - not just the FLDS. And then there are many other forms of indoctrination, but don't get me started on that.

Thanks again for your review of my book, and your intelligent thoughts on the whole subject. You provide a great service.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Zoe!!!

Don't worry -- I get what you were doing with the character of Brother Reuben, and I didn't mean it as a criticism that an FLDS person might consider your book "anti-FLDS". I'm just trying to encourage people to think about what they mean when they label something "anti-Mormon."