Fall 1987, Volume 4.2
Charlotte M. Wright
Goodbye to Poplarhaven: Recollections of a Utah Boyhood by Edward A. Geary, with illustrations by Ralph H. Reynolds.
Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985, x+163pp., $8.95.
The Backslider by Levi S. Peterson.
Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986, x+361pp., $12.95.
Charlotte M. Wright is the Editorial Assistant for Western American Literature, published at Utah State University. Additionally, she teaches English part-time at that institution. She has published poetry and reviews in several journals....
Comparing Edward A. Geary's Goodbye to Poplarhaven to Levi S. Peterson's The Backslider may not be equitable—as the former is a collection of reminiscences and the latter is a novel—but it certainly reveals the difference between reality and what ordinarily passes for it in Mormon literature. Though both works are set in mid-twentieth century rural Mormon vilages, the images left in the mind of the reader are as different as night and day. Admittedly, one should not expect that the image of community life which emerges from a set of nonfiction essays would be the same as that which emerges from a novel. Still, I am bothered that the work of fiction seems more realistic than the biographical essays.
Geary's Poplarhaven is based on the town of Huntington. He says he used the fictitious name to underscore the fact that the town he remembers is in all likelihood not the same as others remember it to be. I should hope not. Poplarhaven and its inhabitants are too good to be true. Geary's philosophy, like Dorothy of Kansas, is that "there's no place like home," and he sets out to prove it to the reader. He describes the town at first as a bit run down and untidy, scattered with "unpainted outbuildings, rickety fences, and superannuated farm implements." He defends the clutter as being beautiful in its own way, finding beauty even in the town dump: "The dead animals made for some olfactory unpleasantness, but otherwise the dump was a sensory delight . . . ." He defends what others may view as hostile surroundings—a town where the "most exciting times were when [they] got together to watch somebody's house burn down," for instance, or where the irrigation system "spread periodic epidemics of typhoid" through the population. In typical Mormon fashion, Geary glosses over these problems, finding beauty amidst ugliness and implying that the hostile conditions were necessary for the growth and development of the people of Poplarhaven.
The men in the town, as Geary remembers them, were for the most part righteous, upright, unquestioning members of the Mormon church. Even those who were not are presented in a pleasant, humorous light:
Ralph and Homer Meeker were fairly respectable, as old batches went. They didn't attend church, but they were hardworking and self-sustaining with a farm and some livestock, and while they usually spent their evenings at Klecker's [the local pool hall] they seemed to make their way back home again in a not-too-badly-impaired condition.
The women, with the lone exception of Retty Mott, who had danced with Butch Cassidy in her youth and as an old woman filled the role of town shrew, were all motherly and kind, staying in the background of Geary's existence like a good Mormon woman should. In these essays, in fact, women are so much in the background that the reader wonders if the town may have had a shortage of them. In his essay which classifies the four kinds "of men who build the Mormon village and gave it its distinctive character," he outlines the characteristics of "the bishop, the builder, the saint . . .[and] the rancher." His only mention of the women who in reality bore a major portion of the emotional and physical trials of settling the desert town are the women who cried at their first glimpse of the place. He should have included in his classification scheme at least one type which would represent the work that the women contributed toward the building of "the abundant heritage" that Geary so obviously reveres. Even if he was unaware, as a boy, of the community-building roles that women played in Poplarhaven, he could not have been unaware of their nurturing of the family unit, and he could easily have included such a role in his classification. Instead, Geary perpetuates the predominantly masculine orientation of Mormon history that is so maddeningly pervasive and so obviously misleading.
Yet in spite of my opposition to the underlying naivete of Geary's vision, I often found myself caught up in the image of the peaceful Mormon village. The town he describes is desirable; things happen with a regularity missing in the modern world, and simple rituals and traditions keep the inhabitants firmly bound to family and town. Such security is at times enviable, until one remembers that in real life, what such small towns breed is smugness and self-righteousness, a sense that becuase their way of living so pleasantly reinforces their own sense of right and wrong, that way must be the right way for everyone. All is accepted, nothing is questioned, resulting in a frightening ignorance of the outside world.
Yes, Geary's dream-like world is tempting, but I prefer the gritty, gutsy, realistic world of Levi Peterson's memory, as described in his novel The Backslider. Here, against the same type of untidiness and disrepair of landscape which Geary describes, Peterson writes of people who have not yet attained the kingdom of heaven.
His depiction of rural Utah community life in the 1950's is revealed through the experiences and thoughts of Frank Windham, a "Mormon cowboy" who has grown up in an obsessively strict and extremely neurotic Mormon home. Frank works on a ranch during the week, then goes carousing with his friends on the weekend. He is full of guilt, and sees the capricious (when not downright sinister) hand of God in everything that happens to him. He spends most of his time figuring out how to hide his "evil" nature from God, reasoning "that some sins, committed in out of the way places, might not come to the attention of the Almighty, at least not until Judgment Day, when all the books would be opened and every secret, shameful thing would stand revealed." On the other hand, Frank's girlfriend Marianne has the opposite view of God. A Lutheran, she is convinced that her childhood vision of "the cowboy Jesus" more accurately describes the almighty presence:
He's got on chaps and spurs and a blue denim jacket and a ten gallon hat. . . . He has a beard and he looks like there isn't anybody in the whole world he can't love. He says, I found you; you were lost, but I found you.
The unconventional love story between Frank and Marianne is set down in the midst of a motley group of characters. You'll recognize the personalities of your friends, your family members, and your neighbors in such characters as Wesley, the arrogant and philosophical rancher for whom Frank works; Clara, Wesley's down-to-earth, practical wife; Margaret, Frank's neurotic mother who loves her grown children but tries to dictate to them even what food they should eat; Nathan, the staunch old Mormon who works for Wesley and is deathly afraid of his sweet wife Dora; and the marvelously looney but sincere group of polygamists who complicate the lives of everyone. What is real about these people is that good and bad things happen to them all, and they respond in good and bad ways. They make mistakes. They feel guilt. They repent, then make the same mistakes again. But they also have fun. They laugh. They dance. They play games. In other words, unlike the whitewashed characters who people Geary's essays, Peterson's characters run the gamut of emotions.
Peterson is an honest writer. He includes everything from masturbation to religious hypocrisy in his novel, but his sense of humor prevents the mention of these "sins" from being cynical or offensive. Peterson does not preach; he observes. And his observations of smalltown Mormon life ring true.
If you prefer to reinforce your belief that Mormon village life is the only place one can experience heaven on earth, read Geary's Goodbye to Poplarhaven. If, however, you are tired of reading book after book about the righteousness and perfection of Mormon village life and would prefer a more balanced view, read The Backslider.