May 4, 2011

Review: Claudia L. Bushman, ed., "Pansy's History: The Autobiography of Margaret E. P. Gordon, 1866-1966"

Title: Pansy's History: The Autobiography of Margaret E. P. Gordon, 1866-1966
Editor: Claudia L. Bushman
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Genre: Autobiography
Year: 2011
Pages: 326, Genealogy, Chronology, Appendix, Index
ISBN13: 978-0-87421-784-1
Binding: Hardcover
Price: $34.95

"These are only memories & high lights 
& not a history with continuity, just pictures 
of the long ago, as they come to mind" (159). 

True to Mormonism's foundational book, the Book of Mormon, Claudia Lauper Bushman is a strong proponent of record keeping. Bushman's maternal grandmother, Margaret Gordon, used to visit and share stories of her exciting youth which the family urged her to write down. "[S]he said she regretted that she could not record [the stories] until she had a leather book...I felt sorry then that poor Grandmother never got the leather book she required" (xi). In 2002 Bushman was searching for a short life "Sketch" in Margaret's papers which had been donated to the library at Brigham Young University. Again, true to Mormonism's founding book, she relates her stunning discovery of lost writings:

But another item that I did find took my breath away, for there was Grandmother Gordon's autobiography, her "Family History." What is more—and very touching to me—a caramel-colored leather book held the manuscript, with the title "Family History" and her name, Margaret E.P. Gordon, stamped on it in gold (the E.P. stood for Elizabeth Pansy, her nickname)...I thumbed through the book, read some pages, and knew that I had discovered a treasure (xii).

Bushman and other family members went to work transcribing, proof-reading, collecting photographs and preparing the book for inclusion in Utah State University Press's "Life Writings of Frontier Women" series. Pansy began writing her "Family History" in 1928 at the age of sixty-two, and wrote intermittently for thirty-six years. She wrote about her hundred years of life, from her early childhood in Bingley, Yorkshire, England to her late life travels doing genealogy work in and around Southern California. In between these bookends she lived in colonizing villages in British Columbia and Ontario, Canada, growing Mormon settlements in Meadowville and Raymond, Utah, as well as Alberta.

With the care of a descendant and the precision of a trained historian, Bushman includes letters, diary excerpts, and other explanatory footnotes throughout her transcript of Pansy's history. These additional materials help contextualize the decisions of inclusion and exclusion Pansy made as she crafted a narrative to give her life meaning and encourage her descendants. (At times Bushman also relies on sources like Wikipedia or the Deseret News Almanac). The fact that Pansy had so many interesting experiences and was a talented writer also doesn't hurt. Her wedding and honeymoon account is quite wonderful, and it's a good representation of Pansy's often-romantic prose:

By 8 AM we [her and fiancĂ© Jim Gordon] were in the Temple, & in those days it took much longer to go through—so it was late afternoon when we emerged from those beautiful and sacred Portals Man & Wife—having thoroughly enjoyed the whole ceremony. We went to our hotel, had a good dinner, then started for home—Leisurely driving [in a wagon] out of town into the beautiful canyon through which flowed the rushing little river. By dusk we came to some beautiful natural Meadows—down by the river—Jim had planned we would camp there but had not told me—So he turned off the road & said here's where we would spend the night. He soon had a fine fire blazing, & our supper cooked. Then the horses taken care of, he made down our bed in the Wagon, having brought all necessary bedding—Then after a never to be forgotten visit till the stars came down ^out^, in a most beautiful spot imaginable, far from any other human beings, we spent our first night...A more romantic beautiful setting for a few hours Honeymoon it would be hard to find. Alone in a Mountain Meadow, sitting by a big camp fire—watching the summer stars come out—No sound for a background to our whispering, but the music of the rushing brook, the gentle soughing of the night wind through the trees & an occasional bird call—...Different, yes quite, from the usual—but we were different, Life [was] cast in a different mold for me from then on. Its compensations have outweighed its difficulties (116).

As this excerpt makes apparent, Pansy was keen to record vivid details—the sensuousness of life in sounds, sights, smells, tastes—something Bushman called my attention to in the book's preface (xiii). She remembers phosphorescence on a Canadian lake, canoeing by night, she recalls the morning frost on the blankets waking up in a wagon during a long journey, still tastes the berries picked in the woods with her parents as a child.

One of the most interesting elements of the narrative is Pansy's efforts to write over or through her tragedies and frustration while still including some of their details, sometimes inadvertently. Financial loss, stress and frustration, sorrow, mental instability and death all make appearances. "Big risks," Bushman notes in one of the several section introductions, "did not always pay off," (137) and Pansy's family was often plagued by financial difficulty as her husband struggled to make a living doing farm work and later surveying land. She managed to not mention particulars about how her own desire to be attractive and fashionable, as well as up-to-date with technologies like the telephone and electricity, added to the family's debt and financial stress (172). Bushman includes diary excerpts and family letters which give insight to these matters. Pansy's sorrows increased as some of her children left the Church. Her firstborn son Kenny disappointed her by marrying a non-Mormon but seemed to be reengaging with the church when he died in a tragic work accident, falling from "a high building in To[o]ele" (224). Throughout her recollections, perhaps as the result of not being contemporaneously recorded, Pansy paid much more attention to family matters while big world history events like World War I or II seldom receive much attention—only in connection with family, as when one of her sons joined the military (91, 183). There is plenty of humor too, like the story of the "China man cook" at a house where she boarded for school who would sneak her deliciously forbidden foods when her caretaker/teacher was away. "You no tell Miss Dodson" Pansy remembers him saying (53).

On a more personal note, I was surprised to find information in the book about a man named Joseph Venables Vernon. He was Pansy's grandfather. Back in 2007 I was still working on the original project which this blog was created for, long since abandoned. I was reading the Journal of Discourses and writing somewhat homiletic commentary on the text. I spent a day or two trying to discover information about a man named brother Vernon, whom Brigham Young praised because he had "lived his religion, kept the commandments of God, and minded his own business" (Journal of Discourses 3:255. Incidentally, a fair chunk of this discourse was included in the 1997 "Teachings of Presidents of the Church" lesson manual on Brigham Young). I tracked down a woman named Virginia Andrus, who provided me with a photograph of Vernon. Imagine my surprise when I saw that same picture staring back at me in this book! I quickly leafed back through the acknowledgements, and sure enough, Virginia Andrus is there. I was sad to discover the tragic circumstances of his conversion and later departure from the Church in Utah, which Bushman details in the notes (21-26).

Pansy herself was a convert to the Church, which she initially viewed with great disgust until visiting her Mormon relatives in Utah. Bushman pays very careful attention to Pansy's account of her conversion, noting a few discrepancies and demonstrating from other sources how Pansy re-remembered elements of her conversion, conflating the timing and the impressions received by her and her mother who converted about the same time. Bushman skillfully shows the power of time and reflection on memory (82-84).

Given Pansy's time frame it is interesting how little polygamy is mentioned, though Bushman provides information about the practice's decline under legal sanctions in Utah and beyond in the early 1900s. Pansy recalls her initial feelings abut Mormonism were tainted because "Brigham Young, who I was taught to think of as a wicked immoral man—& polygamy—kept coming to my mind." But she had such an impression to "Find out about Mormonism" that she asked her cousin Fewson to mail her some reading materials. Her and her mother were especially impressed by Orson Spencer's now forgotten Letters Exhibiting the Most Prominent Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Reply to the Rev. William Cromwell, A.M. Having overcome her initial objections to Mormonism she evidently carried a certain distaste for polygamy thereafter, as a Bushman footnote points to family lore about her rejection of a plural marriage proposal, to which she is supposed to have admonished the asker to "go to hell" (105).

Pansy's experiences before joining the Church gave her a rather expansive view of the gospel, and she never hesitated to perform Temple ordinances on behalf of people she admired and knew, but whom never joined the Church in life. She also notes instances where women gave each other blessings akin to what contemporary Mormons refer to as priesthood blessings. Zina Card, a daughter of earlier Church President Brigham Young, gave her a blessing in which she encouraged Pansy to have another child (148). A wonderful blessing of comfort "not in the authority of the Priesthood but in the simple faith of a good true Woman Saint" was given her by Mary Pickering (205). She told her the Lord loved her deeply and that God had "a great mission for me to perform, greater than anything I had ever done" (205-6).

This blessing evidently helped instigate Pansy's move to California where she would interweave moments of interaction with Church hierarchy, when a woman's proper role (her proper role) was discussed. Her great work involved learning and then teaching others about proper genealogical research and Temple work. She was asked by Alonzo Hinckley to head up genealogical efforts in California as an official church calling. She was especially impressed by the blessing and setting apart she received from Hinckley:

I bless you with full authority & Power to go into every District & Branch of this great Mission & organize & teach Genealogy & Temple Work (239). 

She was especially impressed that Hinckley, who was presiding over the California mission when he called Pansy, was now an apostle. This decision to put her in charge wasn't uncontroversial. Hinckley had received permission from apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, who wrote to him: "All things being equal we would have preferred a man, but as that seems impossible we give Sister Gordon our unequivocal approval" (239). Smith later gave her a personal blessing when she returned to Utah for a time to receive training at the Church's research department library, p. 233). Even still, others weren't so sure about this woman. One Brother Jones "told me he could not understand why the Church would put a woman in a Position of authority like that. It just wasn't in order" (240). Others expressed similar feelings until Hinckley stood before a congregation, paused in his remarks and walked over to stand beside Pansy who was seated on the stand. He "put his hand on my shoulder & said, 'This woman has been called—and given full Power & Authority to go into every branch of this Mission—to organize & teach Genealogy & Temple Work." She recalls that "the effect was electrifying...That was one of the most wonderful moments of ^my^ life" (241). Other "electrifying" moments are recorded after receiving or witnessing healing priesthood blessings, the miracles she dutifully recorded for future posterity (203, 245).

Obviously, Pansy's womanhood is apparent in instances other than discussions of Church authority. She was attuned to good fashion despite the financial hardships. A particularly funny recollection regards the old "night gowns of white cambric trimmed with embroidery. Such relics of antiquity my girls could not imagine And they were just the worst fitting most uncomfortable things, long sleeves & high necks. Just too bad for words, how ever I had to wear them—& they never seemed to wear out. I had some calico house dresses made up which were a little better, & petticoats, etc. Oh, I stocked myself up well" (113). Her insecurities shine through in letters Bushman added. "'Will he love me when I'm old' is the question I am now asking myself as I gaze in the glass at my rapidly increasing proportions & let out my dresses" she wrote to her husband in 1914 as he was away for work for long periods (178). She scolds him for being too glum, or for bad fashion, but tempers it with a self-deprecating sign-off, "Your no account wife, Pansy" (192-3). This same feistiness also shows through in some of the inter-Saint squabbling she recalls taking part in as she worked in various church genealogical libraries. Then-Stake President Legrand Richards promised her if she would "go on quietly, trying to overcome the ill will now will be blest & in time be given great responsibility in the Church" (237).

Vignettes like this pervade Pansy's entire narrative. At the center of it all is Pansy's nagging memory of a marriage proposal she passed up just before becoming engaged to Jim. Joseph Sharp of Salt Lake poured his heart out to her (Bushman includes the very personal letter in the footnotes, p. 106) but Jim was of "good sturdy Scotch blood" and she couldn't bring herself to break away from the rest of her family, then residing in Meadowville, to go get married in Salt Lake. She negotiated the struggle between desire and reality by understanding her life as the product of God's guidance:

[Joseph Sharp] would have been a good match for me—he had sheep & property—& a position in the city & I could have had a pleasant life. But I know for a certainty my Father over ruled my life, & I chose the path I was meant to tread—not a path of ease or even much material pleasure but my path, which was to lead me the way I was meant to go—So that chance to walk along a smoother way was passed up & I walked out onto the way destined for me, & I have no doubt. And so I passed up a fork in the road & stepped right on (107).

Admiring but not uncritical, Bushman's editing is both scholarly and elegant, adding even more life to Pansy's quite remarkable hundred years (1866-1966). This book takes us to Indian villages on sleigh rides and canoe trips, and to villages of Christian evangelizing, with the translation of hymns into indigenous languages and the problems of colonization. We experience early Utah schoolrooms, musical performances, fragrant meadows, and modes of travel from horseback to car rides on highways. "While as a child," Bushman concludes, "I didn't always appreciate my bossy grandmother, I have come to admire her indomitable zest and her brave artistry in turning her life into a triumph" (276).

Her admiration can be extended through us in Pansy's History, which parenthetically, is also physically well-crafted, bound, and designed. Bushman's useful appendix adds letters Pansy's father wrote to the Missionary society under which he was employed when the family first moved from England to British Columbia. A personal life sketch written by Pansy's husband Jim adds a few interesting details, and also echoes some of the things Pansy had noted, like his enjoyment serving as the Stirling ward choir leader, Pansy as choir organist (309, see Pansy's account on 140). The appendix closes with records Pansy kept of her travels doing genealogical research and training, which mention meetings she attended, places she went, and overviews of talks she gave.

There is something quite intimate about reading a personal account like this, it differs so significantly from a history book, but or course, is its own history book. I've left plenty of holes in this review which I hope you will be eager to fill in by checking out her story for yourself. I'm quite glad this lost book has come back to speak to us from the dust.


Matthew Tandy said...

That sounds like an awesome book!

Craig M. said...

Thanks for always posting these great book reviews!

BHodges said...

Oops, I just noticed I failed to include a few excerpts from my notes before I posted this, which have now been added. Mention of polygamy, marital struggles, etc.

Thanks Matt and Craig.

J. Stapley said...

Awesome, as ever, BHodges!

BHodges said...

Thanks J. Your work on women ritual healing really helped me conceptualize and locate Pansy's accounts of blessings, etc. There was also a mention of glossolalia(which took place in 1906 or so) though it seemed Pansy wasn't impressed at the time.

Michael Taylor said...

Awesome review! Sounds like a truly remarkable life story. I would love to read it.

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