May 10, 2010

Review: Angela Hallstrom, "Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction"

Title: Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction
Editor: Angela Hallstrom 
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Fiction/Short Stories
Year: 2010
Pages: 458
ISBN13: 9780984360307
Binding: trade paperback
Price: 19.95

I can’t pinpoint the moment I became completely uninterested in Mormon fiction. As a youth I enjoyed the “Lucky” series by Dean Hughes and Gerald Lund’s Work and the Glory, of course. I never read Charly—I  didn’t even watch the major motion picture adaptation. So it’s been a few years. Then I start noticing literary rumblings on various blogs which brought to mind the many stories and poems I’d skipped over in Dialogue and BYU Studies. Maybe that was a poor choice…

It’s sort of like I was walking down the street, minding my own business when a mysterious woman in a trench coat pulled me aside with a sidelong glance and whisper.

“Hey, kid. Can I interest you in something?”

As she opened the trench coat I expected to set my eyes on some fake Rolodex watches or bootlegged DVDs.  Instead, Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction tumbled into my hand. After the first few stories I became hooked.

Of course, Dispensation is pretty much free of lame literary devices and tropes like the one I just employed. I fall back on such things in this review because the collection has so many interesting, diverse stories, my head is sort of spinning.  I’m reviewing this from the perspective of a person who reads mostly non-fiction (with a little Russian literature) thrown in for good measure). Fiction can provide a welcome break from drier academic works. It took me a story or two to stop expecting footnotes.

I doubt all of the stories in this collection will appeal to any given reader, de gustibus non est disputandum, but there is enough diversity in style and theme to satisfy a wide readership. Mormonism plays more or less a part in each story, some of which are downright puzzling, like Jack Harrell’s “Calling and Election.” A seminary teacher with a brain tumor inadvertently destroys his life by striking a deal for exaltation with a mysterious General Authority named “Brother Lucy.” Lee Allred’s “The Hymnal” is a sort of post-apocalyptic sci-fi story apparently about a group of the last humans on earth huddled in an LDS chapel as the rest of the universe disassembles around them. Chaos appears to cancel creation. They sing "Hosanna, Hosanna!” while an atheist recites from Tennyson’s Ulysses.

Like the creation story of Genesis, the variety of characters in Dispensation adds beauty to the whole. I was drawn to Mary, who struggled and wept as she temple-clothed her deceased mother-in-law in Lisa Torcasso Downing’s eloquent “Clothing Esther.” My heart hurt for another Mary, a young Navajo in the story “White Shell.” She finds herself in an alien environment as part of the Indian Placement Program and after reading from the Book of Mormon, wonders if she will ever be pure enough, if her skin will become white and delightsome. “Obbligato” had my wife crying as I read to her during a late afternoon drive, the suspense of “The Walker” had me hurrying to the curious conclusion, “Zoo Sounds” introduced me to some of the intimate motherly worries over a wayward child.

I didn’t fully enjoy all 28 stories. In Orson Scott Card’s “Helaman’s House” (the most overtly homiletic of the collection) the title character spends Christmas Eve regretting his decision to build a large house in a wealthy neighborhood. A recently-returned missionary leaves the house in tears after recalling the destitute people he recently lived among in Columbia. Helaman’s guilt leads him to find a way to justify such a large bathroom. While this story wraps up nicely, most of the others aren't so clear cut, many of them leave the problems, like those in our own day-to-day lives, in need of further resolution through struggle. But even the stories I didn’t enjoy sent me down roads of Mormonism I’ve not frequently traveled.

Angela Hallstrom, the editor of the compilation, has done a wonderful job putting this book together and Zarahemla Books deserves praise for making the collection available. With a few cuss words and adult themes, the book would likely garner a PG-13 rating. Stories explore issues of race, gender, aging and adolescence, mental illness, divorce, death, homelessness, and other topics, all framed by the Mormon experience. Fiction opens up spaces that can be filled by a depth of emotion, spaces which are most often closed off in non-fiction. Inner thoughts, feelings, longings, and sorrows that the eye or the historical record can’t usually capture introduce a human element unavailable to the historian or biographer. There is something about the Mormon experience depicted throughout Dispensation that can’t be found elsewhere—it can only be found in fiction. This book is a perfect place to get a taste, but once you start you might not be able to quit.  


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