Fall 1993, Volume 10.3
Reviewed by Marshall Bruce Gentry, Department of English, University of Indianapolis
Bright Angels and Familiars: Contemporary Mormon Stories, ed. Eugene England. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1992, 368 pp., $19.95 (paper).
Does the category "Mormon short story" make sense? Can the Mormonism of an author make his or her stories better? Is there something about Mormonism that makes it particularly conducive to the production and appreciation of short stories? These are questions raised by the anthology Bright Angels and Familiars, edited by a professor of English at Brigham Young University. While the interesting claims in Eugene England's Introduction on behalf of the Mormon short story are not altogether backed up by the collection's twenty-two stories, the collection does contain a number of very good stories, and reading these stories together adds to one's enjoyment of them.
In the Introduction, England often attempts to reach out to non-Mormon readers to show the importance of what might seem alien. The reader is regularly reminded that these Mormon writers, such as Levi S. Peterson and Orson Scott Card, have appeared in prestigious magazines and that their books are produced by important publishing houses. And yet, as England surveys the history of Mormon short stories, the split between writing for Mormon readers and writing for the outside world remains. In selecting stories for this collection, from the "lost generation" writers Virginia Sorensen and Maurine Whipple to more recent authors like Neal Chandler and Walter Kirn, England says he considered it important that a reader be able to detect the author's Mormon background, that the story achieve a Mormon readership, and that the author influence other Mormon writers.
Within many of the stories in this collection, the religious tensions are comparable to those within Catholic fiction faced by Flannery O'Connor. Unlike O'Connor, who always at least seems to want to rub her reader's nose in a story, these stories generally appear friendly, even mild, the challenges cloaked in understatement. O'Connor herself couldn't decide whom she was writing for, and it is interesting that she had little use for the American Catholic fiction of her time.
What do I see as similarities among these stories? I am struck by the frequency with which stories focus on individuals working out their reconciliation to the morality of the surrounding society. I notice a lot of interest in the landscape of the American West, in literal and symbolic water, and in fathers. I am surprised to notice frequent attention to women's issues, although the tone of the stories seems almost always to suggest that a woman finally has to be willing to conform to the will of the group. Some of the stories resort to unearned, "hopeful" endings-the kind that make me despair-and sometimes the urge to question is very muted, as if it took all of a character's energy to express a doubt. But at their best, the Mormonism in these stories can produce an admirable comfortableness with ambiguity, a faith that resolution can be delayed, that questions are healthy.
As with every anthology, the value of the book lies ultimately in the worth of its contents taken individually. I am pleased to discover a number of contemporary writers whose work belongs in anthologies without a Mormon label. Pauline Mortensen's "Woman Talking to a Cow," the shortest story in the collection, presents the thoroughly enjoyable voice of a farmer's wife who can vent her outrage about his business decisions only by talking to a cow she feeds. Judith Freeman's "Family Attractions" does a wonderful job of representing the conflicting points of view within a family made up of a thirty-eight-year-old woman, her twin daughters, and sixty-five-year-old stepfather. The characters are believably complex, the marriage struggle, their hope for a third child paired with thoughts of death. Phyllis Barber's "At the Talent Show" paints a believable picture of the love and betrayal between a father and daughter, for both of whom pride in the self and the other alternates with accusations and deflating laughter.
Many of the other stories are also valuable, but my favorite is "Born of the Water" by Wayne Jorgensen. Here a newly-baptized eight-year-old son learns the depth of his love for his anti-religious father. The story ends with the boy's awareness that he is committed to both his religion and his father. Jorgensen succeeds in persuading me that Mormonism is thoroughly compatible with the paradoxical complexity of the best contemporary fiction.