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The Lost World of the Mormons

The Chinchilla Farm

by Judith Freeman
Norton, 308 pp., $19.95

Doc’: The Rape of the Town of Lovell

by Jack Olsen
Atheneum, 479 pp., $19.95

The Mormon Murders: A True Story of Greed, Forgery, Deceit, and Death

by Steven Naifeh, by Gregory White Smith
New American Library, 515 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders

by Linda Sillitoe, by Allen Roberts
Signature Books, 570 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Windows on the Sea and Other Stories

by Linda Sillitoe
Signature Books, 174 pp., $9.95 (paper)

When Verna Flake, the heroine of Judith Freeman’s elegaic novel The Chinchilla Farm, regrets the transience of human love, she is mourning not only the infidelity of her husband Leon, who has run off with a beauty queen, but the loss of a world centered on and ordered by the Mormon church. Leon’s defection with Pinky was betrayal

at a depth I thought cruel. He had led my mother to believe (or so she had later told me) that I had been the first to stop wearing the holy underwear, and by doing so, steered us on a wrong course—one he was powerless to abandon or alter, as though the woman, as with Eve, were again to blame, responsible for what in truth was a man’s own complicity.

Verna and Leon had lapsed, with much defiant smoking and drinking, but the central questions in her mind remain spiritual as well as personal:

What if in our own lives it were also possible not only to swear devotion, but to follow through on such a promise? Have things changed so much? Can we still hope to live a long and full life based on a vow, putting our hearts on a deep and unquestioned track of fidelity?

One cannot help being struck by how seldom such questions are asked in modern fiction. Literary subjects undulate like hemlines with the emotional fashions of the capital, distant from vast tracts of land and millions of people whose concerns are quite other. Dramas of the loss of faith no longer have the poignancy they had for the nineteenth century; and, anyway, faith, by definition inaccessible to others and nearly inexpressible, has always been harder to make interesting than the loss of faith.

Verna’s story manages to be about both. Although she has fallen away from the Mormon church, she has not altogether come to terms with the profane outside world. Raised in Utah in a large, devout family, where “everything—everything was tied to the church, it was our life, so there was this strange order to the chaos,” she will exchange Zion for Los Angeles, where “there were more choices in the world than I had imagined. Everything opened up when I left home, and yet, everything was at once lost.”

After Leon leaves her, she drives to LA in her pickup truck, towing a horse trailer he has given her as her share of their possessions. She stays for a while with an old friend, Jolene, and her husband, Vincent, then moves into a shabby apartment and gets a job as a dental receptionist. She is lonely and looks up family connections, including Inez, widow of a dead brother, and Inez’s retarded but agreeable daughter, Christobel, who live with an abusive old man, Jim, from whom they want to escape.

When the marriage of Vincent and Jolene breaks up, Vincent starts spending time with Verna—until she kisses him. Then he protests “I don’t have those feelings,” and stops coming over. (Here the trained 1980s reader will suppose that Vincent is gay.) Eventually Verna drives Inez and Christobel to Mexico, to get away from Jim. Jim follows them, and is accidentally pushed to his death by the morally unaccountable Christobel.

Verna is that rare creature, a reliable female narrator, whose preoccupations are with what she sees and learns about the world instead of with the resolution of her own story, about which she is almost taciturn. She is more articulate and confidential to the reader than she represents herself as being when she talks to the other characters, and with Vincent she is a model of the compliant female listener. Vincent is grandly rhapsodizing about history:

Already I can see how we’ll have our moment and then we’ll pass, just like those other races and their cultures, those ancient trading centers, the once-flourishing hubs of the world. Do you see that?”

I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m not good at history.”

Think of it,” he said…

I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about…. I don’t know,” I said again. “I don’t know about any of that.”

Verna stubbornly conceals her own philosophical speculations, a response she has learned, presumably, in the atmosphere of credulity she was raised in, where skepticism was reproved, especially in females. But skepticism is a prerequisite for imaginative literature.

The world Verna Flake finds outside Utah is bleak and derelict, yet she is unafraid of it. She befriends a hitchhiker she later finds sleeping in a park that is so rough she has been warned not to go through it. When she takes off for Mexico she never reflects on the danger or unfamiliarity. Apropos of some childhood experience she has told us: “Luckily we belong to a religion that promises this won’t be THE END, so we face death with courage.” She is speaking ironically, of course, but only half ironically, still drawn to old certitudes. When someone complains to her that Mormons hold themselves apart, she explains by describing the secret temple rituals:

People seem pure with all that white on. All white…except the aprons: the small green apron that each person will be wearing, the shiny satin fig leaf, which restores original innocence, I guess, and turns everyone into Adams and Eves.

How could you not feel exceptional?

Not coincidentally she is reading Faust, and at first pretends not to understand this fable of a bartered soul.

Verna’s concerns are partly universal. Standing on the shore of the Pacific, in an Arnoldian mood, she listens to the long, withdrawing roar of the sea of faith. But some of her concerns are specifically female, conditioned by her upbringing in the tradition of Mormonism’s deeply conservative ideas about women—these doubtless the legacy of the “peculiar institution” of polygamy, a singular quirk in Mormon history that still affects the whole community, although it was firmly and pragmatically repealed by a revelation to the Church president a hundred years ago.

Verna is pitying and censorious about the passivity and credulity of women, and resentful of their inferior status.

According to what Mormons believe, Leon could have seven wives in heaven, whereas I could have only one husband. It sounds complicated, but it’s really very simple. It’s just a kind of heavenly law, which allows men more of everything.

This contrasts with “the terrible tragedy of some women’s lives, how they don’t ever see the possibility of having something for themselves but only imagine themselves endlessly serving somebody, offering up the cheapest sort of cheer, and all the while denying their pain.” There is something out of time here. Female resignation has been dismissed, though not in real life, at least as a fashionable subject of fiction, which in its movement from George Eliot to, say, Erica Jong has gone on to other formulations of women’s situation. The real world, of course, is something else.

In Verna Flake’s fictional world, her bleak fable of loss and confusion changes course with an ending one is unprepared for either by current literary fashion, principles of realism, or internal logic. Only in generic terms does it make sense, and even seem correct: Verna and Vincent are married. Moreover, he turns out to be a sensitive, rich, artistic man with a Mercedes Benz convertible—a veritable savior. It is no accident that Pinky, the woman Verna’s first husband ran off with, was a runnerup beauty queen, icon of female submissiveness to male fantasy, and very much the Mormon ideal. Although Verna professes to despise what Pinky represents, the author’s reward to Verna in part affirms these values: marriage, return to Utah, and reintegration into her family, and—what was missing in her life with Leon—a baby. And yet she is not without a sense of having made a fateful bargain. She has come, she says, to understand Faust. In a sort of reverse pastoral, she has journeyed from innocence (Utah) to knowledge (the city) back to innocence (motherhood, which in fiction always restores innocence). If a religious mind can impose an optimistic pattern on the unpromising materials of reality, it is an alternative given to authors too.

The fury of Islam about The Satanic Verses provided an exotic example of the disappointments awaiting religious people and religious societies in a secular and pluralistic world, but many examples can also be found, evidently, in the intermountain West. A number of books and news stories in the past year concerning crimes committed by and/or on Mormons provide extreme realworld correlatives of the emotional situations in The Chinchilla Farm. The rapes of perhaps a hundred or more women in the Mormon community of Lovell, by their Baptist doctor, who for years had convinced them that he was merely doing something medical to them behind their shrouded knees, would seem comic and incredible if the combination of passivity, ignorance, and credulity it testifies to were not itself so horrible. These were sexually ignorant women, trained to trustful acceptance of authority, who hadn’t liked to doubt, or to think that the doctor would do anything wrong, or to tell their husbands or make trouble, so that it took years for suspicion to gather in the collective mind with enough force to bring him to justice. According to Jack Olsen’s tactful and repulsively fascinating account in “Doc”: The Rape of the Town of Lovell, even after his conviction, the town remained divided, with many still unable to believe in Dr. Story’s guilt.

The strange bomb murders in Salt Lake City were of course more horrible still, and a stronger example of the rage and misery that can accompany loss of faith, for here, though there were human victims, the target was the Mormon church itself, and the murderer a disappointed apostate who had set out to alter its very history.

Writing in these pages in 1985, the Yale historian David Brion Davis noted “two important and recently discovered letters” which together “confirm[ed] the view that [Joseph] Smith was deeply immersed in the folk magic of the early nineteenth century.”1 This would challenge Smith’s own account of how he had found golden tablets containing the Book of Mormon, According to Smith, an angel appeared to him and showed him where to find the tablets. The most important of the two letters made “no mention of angels or other divine figures but refers instead to a spirit ‘that transfigured himself from a white salamander,’ ” and thus became known as the Salamander letter, of central importance to Mormon theological history if true, and embarrassing to received accounts because it implied that Mormonism had its origins in Smith’s involvement with popular folk magic practiced during this time, a claim denied by the Church.

These letters, which had originally been suspected by some fundamentalist Mormons to be fakes, had been subjected to careful scrutiny by experts and, it seemed to Professor Davis and others, had been proved to be “almost certainly authentic.” Professor Davis was writing in August 1985. In October the original purchaser of one of the letters, who had then donated it to the Church, was murdered by a nail-encrusted pipe bomb. Some people at first suspected that the crime could be the work of Mormon fanatics, perhaps even members of the Church security forces bent on punishing those who had anything to do with the Salamander letter.

  1. 1

    Secrets of the Mormons,” The New York Review, August 15, 1985.

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