Thursday, September 15, 2011

controversial topics #2: writing about mormon history

A 12-year-old girl from Utah sent me a thoughtful letter about ACROSS THE WIDE AND LONESOME PRAIRIE. She explained that as a Mormon she was hurt by my portrayal of Brigham Young and the early Latter Day Saints, saying he came across as "lazy, demanding, and dumb" and his pioneers as "quite negative."

I immediately re-read Hattie's diary, hoping to see it through her eyes because I remember taking extreme care with the research and writing. I have great respect for Brigham Young as a leader and visionary, a city planner. When I lived in Salt Lake, it was the only place I've ever been able to navigate without a map! The grid is so practical I never got lost, and the same is true of other Mormon towns here in the West. I have many LDS friends -- dear and wonderful people -- and would never want to hurt them.

So line-by-line I analyzed the story then wrote to her:
     'You're right, there is criticism of the Mormons, but I had made sure those remarks were quotes from characters -- not Hattie's narrative -- and that these quotes reflected attitudes of the time. I was hoping my readers would also notice how often Pa defends the Mormons and Brigham Young: he tells the others to stop judging them, that there's nothing wrong with resting on the Sabbath; he praises them for inventing the "road-o-meter" that measures miles traveled and for inventing a 'barometer' to measure the altitude; and for building two ferries to earn money. He calls them "enterprising" and sympathizes with them by saying "Brigham Young's people are trying to start a new life, just like us."
     In the end Hattie decides that Indians and white folks are alike: "some are honest and kind and others are liars and thieves." She never once criticizes Mormons, but instead shows curiosity and wishes she could meet the two children traveling with Brigham Young. For details on his group, I used a journal written by one of the apostles who was on the 1847 trek, lent to me by an LDS friend.'

This gracious young reader responded by thanking me and saying "I think I understand the history there." Her sign-off made my day: "Your devoted fan."