Spring 1989, Volume 6.1
Patricia Truxler Aikins
Juanita Brooks: Mormon Woman Historian by Levi S. Peterson. Woodblock prints by Royden Card. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988, 505 pp., $19.95.
Patricia Truxler Aikins was educated at Holy Names College for Women and the University of Utah. In both places, faculty fostered in her a respect for woman as subject and woman as center of inquiry. Currently, she is Professor of English at Westminster College in Salt Lake City where she has taught courses in English literature, Shakespeare, and regional American women writers for the past twenty years.
Historians, writers, and indeed anyone interested in the problem of the woman intellectual in Utah culture will welcome the publication of Levi Peterson's biography of Juanita Brooks. Her contributions to Mormon history and biography have long been valued, but only now do we have a meticulously documented account of her extraordinary efforts to get to the truth of much of Mormon history.
While Brooks is best known for her controversial study of the Mountain Meadows massacre, Peterson demonstrates that, against all odds, she set out not to debunk the official church position on the incident but rather to understand what really happened in that famous encounter in her native southwestern Utah. It was incidental to Brooks that she rattled a few church officials in 1950 by suggesting that John D. Lee had not acted alone. What she intended instead was an exploration of the truth whereby she established a contemporary example of the role of free inquiry in the understanding of religious matters.
In documenting the Brooks biography, Peterson points out again and again the problems which plagued her as teacher and writer simply because she was a woman. From her dismissal from elementary school by a male teacher who thought her too frail to learn to the slow and horrifying death of her first husband, from Brigham Young University's refusal to make her a small loan for graduation when it had made larger loans to less credit-worthy men to her constant battles with censorship, from the virtual poverty of her early widowhood and the rejection both financial and personal by her inlaws to her second marriage to a widower with several children, from her single parenthood after her first husband's death to the birth of her last child with Will Brooks, Peterson shows us a woman who modestly embraced hardship as a condition of life.
In nearly every chapter, Peterson documents the obstacles to Brooks's teaching and writing which were clearly the result of sexism. But Peterson also shows us a woman too busy with the demands of home, classroom, and library to engage in open warfare against a closed system. Where we today might file a class-action suit, Brooks, like Harriet Beecher Stowe or Abigail Adams, simply fomented quiet rebellions until, much to others' surprise, she had gotten what she wanted in the first place.
While, at times, the biography is almost too heavy with family detail and at others not detailed enough in explanations useful to the non-Mormon reader, Peterson's understanding of and sympathy for this frail little revolutionary with a keen mind and a purpose to match make it well worth reading. It is clear from Peterson's work that Juanita Brooks is to be remembered not just as an eminent Mormon historian nor as a plucky example of intellectual pioneering, but as an example to Mormon and non-Mormon, male and female alike, that there is more than one way to rage against the disesteem of ignorance and prejudice. Instead of noisy anger, Juanita Brooks, Peterson reminds us, opted for the simple, determined pursuit of truth.