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 …

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Letters

Back to Mormonism June 28, 1990