|Boise State University Western Writers Series||Number 31|
Editors: Wayne Chatteton
James H. Maguire
Cover Design and Illustration
by Arny Skov, Copyright 1978
"If you burrow for roots, it was the fault of my grandmother," the protagonist of Virginia Sorensen's novel The Man with the Key remarks. And although we must ignore the half-ironic reference to a fault--and remind ourselves that an author's characters are not the author--this metaphor is an exact image of Virginia Sorensen's world and of her works. Sorensen has published eight novels, most of them about the American West, as well as a number of short stories and a group of children's books. Her roots are the very essence of almost all, and certainly of the best, of her writing--roots that stirred her creative imagination. They are roots deep in a richly complex and yet somehow simple and clear childhood as a believing member of "a peculiar people," to use their own phrase. Her people are the Mormons or, more formally, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--and the center of their world is Utah.
The Mormons are a peculiar people. Of all the groups of Americans that came West, they were by far the most widely separate from the others. The one nineteenth-century American religious group that was not only distinctive in its religion but also violently persecuted for political and moral reasons, the Mormons almost necessarily created a closed and inwardlooking culture, mistrusting and mistrusted.
On the surface, then, the story of the Mormons seems to be the antithesis of all those motivations that we think of as somehow Western, at least as they are given in the literature of the American West. The Mormons have their own myth, but it is not the agreed-upon Western myth. Indeed, Whitney R. Cross argues that Mormonism itself, despite its origins in a recently settled western New York, was not a religion of the frontier (The Burned-Over District, p. 146). Certainly, the Mormons both in the East and in the West were farmers, not hunters, not ranchers, not miners. They were highly organized, even practicing in a few places a kind of communism, as opposed to the "rugged" individualism of most Westerners. They were committed to a structure of religious belief, not to some pantheistic worship of the land. In their most notorious period, they preached a doctrine of family life which might be Biblical but which offended not only the settled East but also a great deal of the unsettled West. And, as compared to the attitudes expressed and actions given in much of our Western literature and in our Western actuality, the Mormons got along well with the Indians. The Mormons were involved in the so-called Black Hawk War of 1865-1868, but this was a relatively minor series of skirmishes. In tact, the Mormons and the Indians were more likely to be allies against the "Americans," as with their collaboration in the infamous Mountain Meadow Massacre. The Mormons were not aggressively anti-Indian, not actively opposed to that set of values which the Indians represent to our modern minds.
Yet how American and how Western the Mormons were and are, despite their peculiarity! The Mormons are paradoxes, but those paradoxes are American and, not too perversely . Western. For example, although they may have rejected a good deal of Eastern American civilization, as they went West, they carried with them their cultural past--its literature and its music as well as its religious traditions--and they carried that past proudly. At the same moment, part of the drive behind the religion was its democratic stance; that is, it appealed mightily to both Easterners and Europeans because it rejected the old social hierarchies, emphasizing the American ideal of each man's being able to save himself--and to make his own way in the world. One can even claim that the Mormons are the representative Westerners, for they contain, express, all the ambiguities of our westering. In them we see our American acceptances and our American rejections.
As a social observer, therefore, Virginia Sorensen has a rich subject matter and, at the same time, an oddly intractable one. For the Mormons do not lend themselves to easy explanation, and yet, because so much of what they represent lies in their inwardness, they must be explained. Nevertheless, of all those writers who have attempted to use the Mormons as subject matter, Sorensen perhaps comes closest to realizing this subject matter fully.
She begins with "history." She has said that she prefers "history" to "mere story-telling" ("Is It True . . .," p. 285). The statement seems to indicate that she prefers factuality over the truths of the imagination. Certainly the idea behind her esthetic is that event divorced from place, history, and person is a kind of empty play. Quoting an old Mormon woman who ends a recital of her intensely vivid memories of her dead friends with the statement that "It is as if they were all here," Sorensen adds, "This is the feeling of Utah that I carry helplessly with me. . . Our history here and our legends are so close to us that it is all but impossible to separate ourselves from them" ("Is It True . . .," p. 284). History, though, is subject. It is not the controlling force. Sorensen's imagination has given us the novels.
Sorensen has also had, and made use of, more than community and history. Utah also gave her a sense of place: its landscape with its clear sun over its little towns, its poplar trees along the cool canals, its brilliant thunderstorms, its dry heat, its gray-blue sagebrush, its mountains, its fierce green that is set against barrenness. This sense of place haunts her novels. She gives it "westness," but this is a westness that is not simply a wonderment about what lies beyond the next range of mountains.
Too, Sorensen gives us something more out of her being a Utah writer. She is also a woman writer, confronting the myths of the West. Women hardly exist in the classic Western novels, except as obvious types. Sorensen's central figures are almost always women; and these women are seldom types, although their experiences are often typical. By their very originality, then, they challenge the assumptions of the Western male world. Among other things, Sorensen's women are usually aware of their own sexuality, even though that sexuality is recognized to be sometimes dangerous. Moreover, because they are in a Mormon society, a very male society at the same moment that it rejects some aspects of Western maleness, Sorensen's women exist in a social density that few other writers of the West, including Willa Cather, can give us. That is, Sorensen's women resist an easy mythification and so offer us, in that resistance, a further critique of the whole westering experience.
Her sense of place, community, and history, then, is Sorensen's vision, a vision that recognizes that the past is significant and always present, that society shapes us, and that a single place, not a mere series of places, is also part of being Western and being American. She has made the West present.
Born February 17, 1912, in Provo, Utah, Sorensen was the third of the six children of Claud E. and Helen El Deva Blackett Eggertsen. When she was five, she moved with her family to Manti, Utah, where she lived until she was thirteen. Although it is a cliche that the childhood and adolescence of writers give them their subject, it is a truth nevertheless. And these are the formative years of Virginia Sorensen's imagination.
After the years in Manti, the family returned north to American Fork, Utah. There Sorensen attended high school and graduated as valedictorian. Later she entered Brigham Young University, the Mormon university, in Provo. In 1933 she married Frederick Sorensen, a professor of English. She received her B.S. in 1934, after she had left Provo and was living with her husband in California. There were two children from this marriage--a daughter, Elizabeth, and a son, Frederick Walter.
"Travel," Sorensen has said, "is my chief interest, and I find a combination of traveler-writer most pleasant" (Contemporary Authors, vol. 15-16, p. 413). Because of her husband's teaching career as well as her own travels she has lived in many American places besides Utah, all of which have become part of her writing: Indiana and Alabama are the settings of some of her children's stories; Colorado is the setting of The Neighbors; the state of Virginia gave her the images for The Man with the Key. With the aid of a Guggenheim award, she visited Mexico, from which would come The Proper Gods. Then, with another Guggenheim award, she went to Denmark, the world of Kingdom Come.
She published her first novel, A Little Lower Than the Angels, in 1942. This was also the first of her Mormon and historical novels. Indeed, she spent some time researching in Illinois and Iowa, the scene of the novel. During the next twelve years she would publish four more novels. Her second was On This Star (1946), another Mormon novel, set in Utah in the not too distant past. The Neighbors (1917), whose action takes place just after World War II, has some Mormon characters, but the story is not directly concerned with the Mormon world.
The Evening and the Morning, published in 1949, returns to the Mormon world of the post-World War I period. But her 1951 novel, The Proper Gods, seems to break utterly with her own experiences, for it is about present-day Mexican Indians, the Yaquis. Yet it, too, is thematically Western. In 1954 she published Many Heavens, another novel concerned with a Mormon subject. In 1960, Kingdom Come appeared. This was the last of her Mormon novels to the present time. It is a historical treatment of Danish converts in the middle of the nineteenth century. Fourteen years would pass before she published another novel.
However, she had also been writing children's books. They are remarkable works in their own right: Miracles on Maple Hill and Plain Girl, especially, give charming, intelligent, and interesting insights into the world of children. Furthermore, these stories reinforce Sorensen's thematic concerns. Curious Missie touches sympathetically upon racial relations. The House Next Door is a story for teen-agers that offers a positive image of the Mormon world at a time when Mormons were generally maligned. Plain Girl presents a young Amish girl and her family. This is a story which, not too oddly, echoes a pattern of the Mormon novels, the conflict between the culture and the individual. In 1957 she published Miracles on Maple Hill, for which she received the John Newberry Medal of the American Library Association. She returned to the subject of Denmark in Lotte's Locket (1964), Around the Corner connects her short story "The Ghost," included in the collection entitled Where Nothing Is Long Ago, to The Man with the Key in its concern with the evils of racism. She has also published short stories, reviews, and articles in such journals as The New Yorker, the Arizona Quarterly, and the Western Humanities Review. Her articles on current topics have appeared in several newspapers.
Her last novel, The Man with the Key, has no Mormons and no references to Utah. Placed mostly in Virginia, it is Sorensen's picture of the American 1960's. Her most recent book, a children's book. Companions of the Road (1978), with its locale in Morocco, "is about the transient friendships of Foreign Service children." "How being a woman was in my day and how protesting didn't work then--is probably the real subject of whatever book I write about Manti, Utah, and the Mormons in the next year or so," she says of her future writing plans (letter to Sylvia Lee, Nov. 7, 1976). Divorced from her first husband, she is married to Alee Waugh, the novelist. They now live in Tangier, Morocco.
The thematic structures of Sorensen's works are, then, intimately related to her life. In particular they are related to the Mormon aspect of her life. Her group of autobiographical stories, written after most of her major novels, is entitled Where Nothing Is Long Ago--but its subtitle is Memories of a Mormon Childhood (1963). The book is a brilliant evocation of childhood, the childhood of an extraordinarily sensitive and imaginative girl. It is also, by implication, a statement concerning the value of the artistic life--a statement that is a continuing element in her works. But, above all, the book gives a realized, concrete presentation of those thematic--artistic and personal--concerns.
One may begin by calling attention to the doubleness in the title of Where Nothing. As we have suggested, to be a Mormon is to be both separate from and yet a part of the American experience. In addition, though, Mormonism is more than a group of dogmas or even a way of acting. It tends to be an all-encompassing social, moral, political, and religious system. As Sorensen has her Joseph Smith suggest in A Little Lower Than the Angels, Mormonism is a matter of "the body and the soul" (p. 191). It overwhelms the individual.
More particularly, life in the center of Utah, where Sorensen spent her formative years, was intimately associated with its past. In that place, literally, nothing is long ago, for the great events of Mormon history are, or were, not in some vague historical period but only a few years, a generation or so, gone. There were people still alive, when Sorensen was young, who could have seen Joseph Smith.
Yet the central matter of Sorensen's novels is not the recovery of the past for its sake but rather an examination of how the individual fits into his culture, especially into a relatively closed culture that is intensely aware of its past. Her major character is almost always an outsider, a sometime rebel, the believer who has difficulty believing or the non-believer who wishes to believe but cannot; and this character is set in and against a culture that is rewarding at the same moment that it can be stifling emotionally and intellectually.
The outsider can exist in this closed society, but often at great psychic cost. For example, Sorensen presents Billy Huckabee of Many Heavens, of whom one of the sympathetic characters remarks, "Billy had the nerve to be himself, but it was lonely" (p. 300). If the outsider does not accommodate himself, he can be destroyed, as with Mercy Baker of A Little Lower Than the Angels. As the novel develops, she is emotionally as well as physically worn down, and her death is inevitable, not simply a plot-ending device.
Yet, in Sorensen's vision, the outsider can accept and become one with his culture if the culture rewards rather than only deprives. Adan Savala of The Proper Gods returns to his Indian world, with all its narrowness, because it does, finally, satisfy him. Sorensen, writing of her contacts with Yaqui Indians, recalls a "shock at the echo in the words and the idea when a Yaqui said to me, proudly, 'We are a peculiar people.' " And, she continues, she wrote about the Yaquis because they were similar to "my own people" ("Is It True . . . ," p. 288). Sorensen is not, then, "anti-Mormon." Instead, she is giving us the complexities of existence, not a simple black and white picture.
She speaks of her "middle" position in her family as symbolic of her middle position towards her world, a position which allows her to reject orthodoxies. But Manti, the town of her childhood, is also a multi-symbolic place. With its white temple standing on its hill and dominating the town, Manti is almost the geographical center of Utah. And down the center of Utah there exists what one can call essential Mormonism.
The town is, on the one hand, the sign of a pure orthodoxy. But, not too paradoxically, here was, is, the center of the Scandinavian (i.e., Danish) element in the Mormon culture. The Danes were perhaps both the best and not quite the best of Mormons. In On This Star, Sorensen has Brigham Young reported as suggesting that the new Danish settlers "had something other Brethren were needing: they were less likely to pull for themselves alone." More explicitly, the Danes would be the best proponents of the United Order, the experimental, anti-individualistic, communal society that Mormons tried to establish in various places during the nineteenth century (On This Star, p. 35). But the Danes did not, in the end, take to it.
In Where Nothing Is Long Ago, Sorensen says, "To most of us to be Danish--as to be Mormon--meant to be virtuous, kind, and of good report" (p. 7). Yet one of her Danish aunts remarks that "Polygamy and the Word of Wisdom [that Mormon prohibition against smoking, drinking, and certain other 'dietary' sins] -- we Danes didn't take to either one" (p. 162).
Although Where Nothing cannot be taken as an exact account of Sorensen's childhood, we may guess at much: the narrator, Virginia, remarks that her father was a "Jack-Mormon," that is, a person who is nominally a member of the Church but does not practice its doctrines. And, the narrator continues, "Mother was not a Mormon at all" (p. 50). Moreover, Sorensen's maternal grandmother, one of the great influences on her life, was the "wicked apostate" of Where Nothing. The grandmother gave to Virginia a glimpse of the world outside the narrow confines of Manti, a glimpse that would inform the mature artist's view of Manti itself.
And so Sorensen, at the last, rejects the label of "Mormon" novelist ("Is It True . . . ," p. 290), and quite rightly, for one cannot and should not reduce her so. Reviewing Richard Scowcroft's Children of the Covenant, she praises the novel for being more than a "story about Mormons," for it "is a story about human beings" (Lythgoe, p. 15--New York Herald-Tribune Book Section, Aug. 19, 1945, p. 5). Her own art is far more than a mere report on, an apology for, or an attack on a single culture. If she has written about Mormons in most of her novels, she has done so because that culture was hers. But she is not simply explaining the unknown. She is, in her manner, creating universals through the particulars of a somewhat strange culture. Mormonism becomes not a social structure to be looked at by an anthropologist, but a society to be used as an analogue of other structures--in which there are human beings.
"See you out west!" the first Mormons to set off on the harrowing journey West cry to one another at the end of Sorensen's first novel, A Little Lower Than the Angels (1942). It is a cry of hope. But the novel itself does not end with such optimism; it ends with a recognition of the actualities of our lives. It is, indeed, almost pessimistic.
On one level, the novel is a rather conventional one. Sorensen's style, like that of most Western American writers, is direct and clear, since she is trying to give a faithful picture of her culture. Nevertheless, despite the apparently conventional style and its more or less chronological structure, the novel is a surprisingly complex work. That is, it is built upon the paradoxes of our westering.
The title comes from Psalm 8: "What is man," the psalmist rhetorically demands, "that thou art mindful of him?" and goes on to say that God has made man "a little lower than the angels" so that mankind may "have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou has put all things under his feet." The quotation is a compendium of most of the novel's themes, and most of the themes, in turn, are based on a contrast, a conflict, of values. Man is in history; he exists in time. And through his
temporal existence he knows himself. But he is necessarily concerned with what is, in the Mormon phrase, "time and eternity." On this level the novel is an examination of the religious life as it gives meaning to our existence; more particularly here it is the religious life under pressures, as well as the pressure which the religious life puts upon the individual.
But there is another important, and more "Western," theme implied in that quotation. This theme will in some shape or another haunt all of Sorensen's novels. To repeat what is now a cliche, our American expansion west has always been a conquest of the land, including all that is implied in having "dominion over the works of thy hands." The conquest of nature is not the central theme of this novel; rather, the conquest is there by implication, supported by and contrasted with that cry of "See you out west" which is the dream of Eden, where nature and man are one.
From the beginning, however, the Mormon attitude towards the land has been somewhat ambivalent. Even that Mormon ideal of making the "desert blossom as the rose," the phrase from the Prophet Isaiah that is a litany in Mormon writing, is not quite an invitation to conquest in the narrow sense. For the metaphor of blossoming suggests a living relationship with the land. We have noted that the Mormons were first of all farmers. Because mining is a destructive exploitation, for instance, the Mormons in Utah rejected for years the idea of mining, especially for gold.
In this novel, the Mormons of Nauvoo, Illinois, are both farmers and commercial traders. The central male figure, Simon Baker, is a farmer, one who delights in his contact with the earth. Yet his love for the earth is mixed with his need to control it. In truth, for Simon the earth is female and must be made to bear. The one person in the novel who is presented as rightfully identifying with the truly natural life is the boy, Amenzo Baker, who yearns after the world of the Indians because they live in harmony with the land.
But here Sorensen is once more slyly double. This dream of living with the land is set against the Mormon doctrine of polygamy, a doctrine that asserts the dominance of the male over land and women. Again, though, we must say that the novel is an examination, a presentation, not a mere negative criticism of values.
The story takes up a moment of history when Mormonism was still denning itself and fighting for survival at the same time. It brings together actual historical personages and the author's created characters, tending to alternate between the two sets of people. The imagination, then, works upon the actual. Furthermore, at least in appearance, the novel's structure widens the value system being examined. But there is a paradox here. The historical characters, in particular Joseph Smith, rather oddly symbolize the world of secular events more than do the created characters. However, Smith, as given here, has not yet slipped away into myth. He is still a living man, with the complexities, virtues, and failings of humankind.
The action of the novel takes place in Nauvoo and just across the Mississippi River in Iowa, during the late 1840's. At the beginning the Mormons are having one of their brief moments of material success and social peace; but at the end, the peace and success have been destroyed. The concluding images are of those first Mormon wagons setting off on a desperate journey westward to an unknown land. Believing in Eden, they have found Eden continually slipping westward away from them. Still, the West promises.
It the first scene, the central figure of the novel and the first "outsider" of Sorensen's fiction is Mercy Baker. Pregnant and unable to sleep in her family's home on the Iowa side of the great river, she muses upon her past. This kind of flashback of memory is a common technical device for Sorensen, a device to remind us that the past is omnipresent and that we exist in time. Significantly, Mercy remembers her father's statement that history was being made out West, to which her husband, Simon, responded: "I'm aiming to help make it" (p. 5).
Mercy's father is symbolically and actually opposed to Simon. The father in part represents the questioning, sometimes cynical aspect of the American experience; he has to believe in man's power to save himself at the same moment that he has rejected organized religion as restrictive. Simon accepts his new Mormon religion unquestioningly. As Mary Lythgoe points out, Simon's "first loyalties are not to [Mercy] . . . , but to his religion and its leaders" (Lythgoe, p. 29). The contrast appears most vividly in Mercy's memory of Simon's assertion that when he came up from the water after his baptism he saw a "White Dove." Her father murmurs, ironically, "Somebody's pigeon!" (p. 55).
In a sense. Mercy is identified with her father. She might be seen as less adventurous than her husband, but she appears so because she resists the emphasis upon the value of the westward movement of the Americans. Consciously and unconsciously she tends to see it as an emphasis upon masculinity, rawness, paradoxically an acceptance of received ideas, despite its element of the search for Eden. Mercy has come west only because she loves Simon. But that love will not sustain her in the face of harsh actualities and blind faith.
Eliza Snow, the actual Mormon poet (and plural wife of Joseph Smith), comes to welcome Mercy formally to the Mormon world. Mercy says, bluntly, "I didn't want to come. But Simon had to." Then the authorial voice comments, "She did not say how it had hurt her that a new devotion could suddenly supplant everything stable and settled in their lives" (p. 13).
There is another contrast between Mercy and Simon: she was born in Rhode Island and was living in Massachusetts when she met him. He, however, came from western New York, that "Burned-over" district of the state where many of the great American religious enthusiasms of the first part of the nineteenth century began, where, indeed, Mormonism began. Mercy is, then, the settled and civilized East, no longer believing, if it ever did, in that Western dream. She brings her books with her, for they are a kind of spiritual life that is opposed to the spirit of religion. Simon, on the other hand, objects, saying rather harshly, "They want folks that'll work, not folks sitting around on their hinders reading books" (p. 7). Even in this contrast, though, there is an implied ambiguity: the pioneer Mormons were extremely conscious of books, of education in that sense. But Simon is not quite typical of them--he is representative of the cruder aspects of westering.
The other aspect of Mormonism, the question of whether it is a true or false religion, is delicately handled in the novel. Sorensen's point is not to argue, but to show the effect of religion and society upon people. To do so, she must use the figure of Joseph Smith. In the dozens of novels in which Smith has been presented, he is too often inhumanly pure and lofty or inhumanly low and vicious. Although Sorensen may not fully succeed, she does attempt to bring him alive.
Simon, Mercy, and their five children are barely established in their new home when Jarvie, the eldest, comes down with "swamp" fever, the endemic fever of the insalubrious site where Smith has decided to build his City Beautiful, i.e., Nauvoo. Indeed, the Bakers' first view of the Mormon city is inauspicious, for they are greeted with the sight of people, ill with swamp fever, stretched on the ground. Joseph Smith himself comes to pray over Jarvie. When the prayer does not seem to help, Joseph looks at Mercy, the only one of the family who has not been baptized, and pointedly suggests an alternate, herbal remedy, saying that it may work "when faith is lacking" (p. 22). Mercy, the disbeliever, sets off alone into the wilderness to gather the necessary tree barks and, in a harrowing scene, is alone when she has her baby. When she returns, carrying the new baby and the barks, she discovers that Jarvie is recovering. To a believer, Jarvie's recovery could be seen as the result of Joseph Smith's prayers. But to the unbeliever it could be a natural event. As Sorensen presents the incident, one can see the nature of the miracles that occur--ambiguous, bewildering, and double-edged. And so it is with the prophet who performs the miracles.
Mercy's own conversion is double-edged and never quite certain. Perhaps the conversion would have been otherwise if the Mormon religion had been otherwise. But at the very center of the novel's concerns, and Mercy's concerns, is polygamy. Eliza Snow becomes Mercy's closest friend and, in a daze of joy, tells Mercy of Joseph's marriage proposal. But Mercy is a witness to the brief, business-like marriage ceremony, and despite her affection for Eliza, Mercy is appalled to think that Emma Smith, Joseph's first wife, has been betrayed. Worse, though, knowing that Simon will accept whatever the church authorities tell him. Mercy has a foresight of what may happen to her.
Most of the novel is, then, a working out of the dilemma of polygamy for the people involved. Mercy, worn out by repeated pregnancies, breaks down physically. The facts of polygamy, the rumors about it, and the Mormons' political cohesiveness and, therefore, power, offend and frighten their non-Mormon neighbors. So the "Gentiles" (in the minds of Mormons, all non-believers are Gentiles) once more begin their persecutions of the Saints. Joseph Smith is murdered, and most of the Mormons turn to Brigham Young tor leadership. As it becomes obvious to Mercy and Simon that somebody must be brought in to care for the house and children, Simon goes to Brigham for advice. Young, the practical man as well as the religious man, just as he was in history, tells Simon, "There's gospel for every trouble a man might have" (p. 28). What he means is that Simon should, must, take a plural wife, and Brigham recommends Chariot Leavitt, a strapping, healthy woman. Simon marries her, keeping the marriage secret from Mercy and the children. But both Mercy and Jarvie, at separate times, discover the truth.
Jarvie, sick with grief for his mother, is filled with hatred for Chariot. He has been, all along, the one to question the morality of church (and Joseph Smith's) actions. He represents an element in the church that lasts to this day.
Mercy now sees herself as Emma Smith. Despite her efforts to reassert herself, she cannot, for she depends utterly upon the strong, efficient, and kind Chariot. This within limits was the pattern for a goodly number of plural marriages. Such marriages could serve a purpose, but suffering was always possible.
Now the Mormons look once more to the West. Simon, a wagon-maker, is asked by Young to be among the first. Simon protests, pleading Mercy's illness. But Young insists and Simon yields. The community is more important than any individual. When the time comes to leave. Mercy, as the first wife, sits in the front wagon alongside Simon. This action is a feeble claim, a feeble protest.
Since their Iowa house has been burned down by the Gentiles and they have been living in Chariot's Nauvoo house, they cross the river and climb the hill. As they go past the road, which turns sharply away from the main road west and leads to their burned-out house. Mercy does not speak, and Simon thinks, "It's as well she shouldn't look; women are strange about such things" (p. 427). Simon is limited, for he does not really see Mercy as a person, even though he loves her. Moreover, he does not see her values. She is a "woman."
As they pass. Mercy slips down from the seat, dead. Although this death may seem, a mechanical way to end a novel, in this case it is the only possible solution for Mercy. For her, the westward movement to Eden is not a movement to Eden. It has been, from the beginning, a movement towards this death. In such movements, individuals do not actually count as much as the myth claims they do.
Sorensen's second novel. On This Star, which came out in 1946, picks up the theme of the conflict between the individual and the culture. But here Mormonism is not a strange religion that is on the defensive against outsiders. It is, rather, the accepted norm for the immediate community. So the novel is an examination of the quiet smugness which can result from material success. The culture's religious values and its materialism and utilitarianism come into conflict with the individual's artistic values. The novel is also about the conflict between social values and the values of the natural world.
Set against the community is one more outsider. In this case he is a church member who has partially rejected the Mormon ideals and ideas. But at the same time he is a product of them, and they still inform his world. The Mormon attitude towards the performing arts has been, as with its attitude towards books, slightly ambivalent, seeing the spiritual, fearing the immoral. And Erik Eriksen is a pianist, an artist, as well as a non-believer. One must note, though, that Erik is not a thorough-going rebel. Indeed, none of Sorensen's outsiders are complete rebels. They are, rather, people caught in a clash of values, just as is the culture they are struggling with. So, although Erik is not really the major character in the novel--that role belongs to the girl, Chel Bowen, with whom Erik falls in love--the meaning of the novel can best be explained by concentrating upon Erik.
The story takes place in Templeton (i.e., Manti), Utah, during the 1920's, not long after 1890, which had marked the end of polygamy as an accepted Mormon doctrine. The events of On This Star develop from the complex relationships that polygamy brought about. Erik is the son of a polygamous family, and the quarrel between culture and individual is also a quarrel of the family, a literary situation that throws an intense light upon the moral dilemma.
The plot recounts the love affair between Chel and Erik. Physically and intellectually but not quite emotionally, Erik has moved away from the town. Chel is beautiful and musically talented, but perhaps somewhat emotionally limited and certainly rather awkwardly unsophisticated. She is engaged to marry Jens, a half-brother to Erik by a first wife. Jens and Eriks' father is dead, and their two mothers repeat the contrast already shown between Mercy Baker and Chariot Leavitt, but with the strength and vitality reversed.
As with most of Sorensen's novels, the first scene is calm and, ,in the light of what follows, paradoxically thematic. Chel stands quietly in the new house that Jens is building for them, and she looks out the window towards the town, towards the temple standing on its hill, towards the mountains beyond, and she is comforted to realize that her world will still exist after her marriage. Here is the solid security of Mormonism: wrapped about with one's own beliefs and one's own people, a person's life can be whole and meaningful. But Chel's security is shallow. She has never been tempted.
Erik, then, is also the tempter. Slim and dark-haired as opposed to his hearty Danish half-brothers, Erik both frightens and excites Chel when he gives her a piano lesson as a wedding gift and improvises variations upon a familiar fugue, changing it into something new and surprising. The suggestion that music has depths and possibilities beyond what she had known is a step in her awakening. But it is also a step in her "fall."
Erik, who lives in New York most of the year, returns to the valley each summer, not only to visit his lonely, pathetic mother but also in a sense to feel his own roots. For Mormonism creates roots that one does not give up easily. This community sense separates Utahans from all other Westerners.
When Erik attends church with his mother, listens to the traditional songs which recount the past, when he mingles with the people and shakes their hands, he feels again not only those things but also the emotions they first gave him. When he plays the old organ in the local ward chapel, he feels a "stay against confused loneliness," a line that pre-dates Robert Frost's famous statement that a poem is "a momentary stay against confusion." However, Erik's art comes from his community as well as from itself. That is, his art is a world, but it grows out of his culture too.
And yet he continually wonders why this sense of belonging can be so right when he is in Templeton, even though when he is "out of sight of the fields and the temples, the fable turned into ridiculous fantasy. . . . 'Truth.' 'Right.' 'Sin.' Here, one could give them singular meanings. But they did not have singular meanings, after all. This he knew" (On This Star, p. 26). For Erik the sense of place is also the sense of belief. Outside of the Utah landscape the belief does not exist. Even though as he grows older it becomes easier for him to part from that landscape and its beliefs, the separation is never easy. "Always, while his train found the way out of the mountains, he felt the painful breaking away" (p. 22).
He struggles with his church about the meanings of the words "good" and "evil." At one point he thinks that Mormonism should have developed "an ethics based on something more substantial than the Garden of Eden--an ethics people don't grow out of once they're mature" (p. 229). Not very paradoxically, Erik is in a sense the most innocent of all the people in the novel. This innocence does not arise from a lack of sophistication but from his belief in the value of the impulses of the intelligent human heart as opposed to unintelligent spontaneity. This attitude can be a silly romanticism, but Erik is not a romantic in a narrow sense. He simply believes in the right of the individual to be free from unnecessary and unfeeling social constraints. Unfortunately, he does not recognize the power of those constraints upon others, in particular upon Chel and upon his own mother.
Erik's mother, Ida, was the second wife, a shy, reclusive person who echoes the "darling lady" of one of the stories in Where Nothing. Ida and the "darling lady" are relics of a time when such people had both a social and a moral status. However, the plural wife, after the so-called "Manifesto" of the Church in 1890 that called for the end of polygamy, too often was someone whose very existence threatened the stability of the church. There would be many Mormons, as for example the Bishop Widdeman of Sorensen's Many Heavens, who became bitter moralists against those few members of their church who continued to practice polygamy.
Ida can live only through her son. Her plight stirs his questioning. His huge half-brothers, a numerous clan, are all the children of the first wife, an earth-mother type named Christine, who gathers her brood around her to fill them with food and love. Here is the true Eriksen family. And, although these boys accept Erik, although they can be proud of his musical abilities, they recognize that he is not quite one of them. This division in the Eriksens is the division in the value systems which the novel is examining and presenting. In a way, the division comes from the two sides of their dead father, Lars--and Lars typifies the doubleness of Mormonism. As a young man in Copenhagen, Lars was drawn to the new world by the reports of the Edenic world in Utah where people practice a "United Order." The principle of sharing appeals to him. In Utah he teaches his sons both to specialize and to co-operate, and over the years they prosper individually and collectively. But their collectivism is familial, not communal. They are part of the community in their religious and moral rules; in their economic world they are together but not necessarily a part of the community.
Equally important thematically is the fact that Lars had been a sensitive, educated man who encouraged Erik's music studies against the objections of the brothers who see music as pleasant but not useful. In brief, Lars is that complex yet positive Mormon figure once more: the family-loving human who believes in community, that best type in the Mormon dream of settling the West. He is the lover of art, whose status in the Mormon world is always ambiguous, and at the same moment he is an individual, holding out against Philistine pressures.
As the story develops, Chel and Erik make love on the night he is to return to New York. Erik is happy. To him their act was not merely sexual; it was, rather, an act of love. But Chel believes that she has committed a terrible sin. Indeed, in discussing this novel, Kenneth B. Hunsaker argues that for Chel, following the teachings of her church, her act was a sin next to murder (Hunsaker, p. 103). Nevertheless, at first Chel and Erik speak of marriage, but even here there is a fine irony. He tells her that he cannot marry her in the Mormon temple but that he will stay and marry her nevertheless. Misunderstanding him, she responds that her father, who is a bishop, could get Erik, this fallen-away Mormon, permission to be married in the temple. Erik is appalled. He has awakened her esthetically and physically, but he has had no effect whatsoever upon her religious beliefs, which require certain forms absolutely.
Going back to New York, Erik is filled with exuberance, believing that he will overcome her hesitations. He writes, encouraging her: "I know what it is like to be a child of the valley and then to be taken out. . . . [But] the world isn't very big. . . and to be shut in one valley of it and one idea of it, even though the valley is beautiful and the idea, also, can't be good" (On This Star, p. 181).
But their two worlds are too far apart. Arriving in New York, Erik finds, instead of the expected letter that will bring them together, Chel's shattering telegram: "You must know by now what a mistake it was. I know. I am marrying Jens" (p. 177). She marries Jens in the temple, pledging herself "for time and eternity," going through the long ceremony weighed down by guilt. Her marriage is dead to her. She gives up the piano. She remains childless and thinks that childlessness is part of her punishment. Not too perversely, she seeks forgiveness and salvation, hoping that she may be saved by suffering and repentance.
After two years, Erik, who has had his mother with him in New York, returns to bring back the ill and homesick Ida. It is autumn, and at the inevitable gathering of the Eriksens at Christine's, the men prepare for their annual deer hunt. This hunt is the pure expression of the male ethos. Up to now, Erik has never taken part. But, invited by Jens, he agrees to go.
The rest of the novel is quickly told and perhaps too obviously prepared for, but it manages to emphasize the ambiguities of psychology and culture. Excited by the return of Erik, Chel forgets to pack Jens' hunting coat and red cap. The brothers joke about people being shot, and later, on his stand, Erik thinks of a heavily ironic line from Love's Labour's Lost:
"Where is the bush that we must stand and play the murderer in?" (On This Star, pp. 238-39). Still, a thematic pattern emerges: Erik is not fully reconciled to this violation of the natural by the need to be "male." Nevertheless, he is excited, finding that he too wants to kill when a deer crosses his view. He fires, wounding the deer. Following it, he sees a flash of red which he thinks is blood and fires again. But it is the red handkerchief on Jens' head. His brother Ivor is the first to arrive and, knowing of Erik and Chel's love, tells Erik if Chel and Erik ever come together he will kill Erik. On the solemn journey back to the valley, the other brothers agree that the killer will never be revealed. But the desire to dominate the natural world has destroyed the human person. And Erik is not sure of his own motives.
Chel's shock and grief at Jens' death are genuine but brief and paradoxical. She takes the fault upon herself, but as she does so, she feels "within her the beginning of order" (p. 259). At Jens' funeral, she hears with an odd satisfaction the words that remind the bereaved that no death is accidental but rather a part of God's plan. All these things were meant to be so. Now the rest of His plan, her and Erik's coming together, can be carried out.
That night, Chel comes to Ida's house to see Erik. Thinking that she is in shock, Erik walks her back to her home. But as they stand outside the gate, she tells him that she knows now that Jens' death was part of that great plan. He tries to tell her it cannot be so. Now he is no longer innocent. Instead, she is the innocent, but that very American type of the innocent who brings about evil. Erik cries, "My God . . . doesn't make plans like the one you invented for Him" (p. 271). He confesses that his rifle had killed Jens. But Chel, in her insane logic, the logic that develops from those common words of a Mormon funeral oration, finds this death, too, part of the plan.
Unable to reach her, Erik turns away in despair. As he walks down the street, he imagines her back in her room, kneeling in prayer, and he thinks, "She'll be all right." She has her religion still--now he understands her as she really is. He lights a cigarette, and "before he had once breathed of it," Ivor, who has followed him, shoots him. Community, the natural world, the world of art are not sufficient in the face of the perverse, bewildering human spirit.
With The Neighbors (1947), Sorensen turned away for the first time from Mormonism as a subject. Her major characters are of Mormon origin, but they live in Colorado, and the society around them is not Mormon. Although the novel is perhaps not completely successful simply because it attempts too many stories and does not resolve itself satisfactorily, it does reiterate her basic thematic concerns. It is also one of her most ironic novels, examining with a sceptical and clear eye the dream of returning to the life of the earth, which is perhaps the most Western of dreams.
The conflict between the individual and the community remains a concern of this novel too, although the community does not have the cohesion of the Mormon world, and as a result, the conflict is not so well denned. But the two themes, the theme of the individual-community conflict and the theme of one's relation to the land, do reflect one another. Therefore, The Neighbors is in a sense the most "Western" of Sorensen's first novels, the one that directly develops the complexity of the ideas that nature is a source of value both to the individual and to the community even while it is an inimical force to be defeated only by a united, communal cooperation.
John Kels, an ex-history teacher (a fact that seems to comment upon the failure of the past to sustain us), his wife, Paulie, and their children leave Denver in order to make a new life on a sheep ranch in the Colorado mountains. The moment is immediately after World War II, a time when a considerable number of Americans turned back to the land in search of meaning.
Kels was reared on the land and believes that he can find salvation with it. But his "nostalgia" does not recognize the actualities. Both the land and the people resist Kels' faith. The very image of water in the West suggests both land and people. The lack of water is a nightmare version of the dream of Eden. The first story of Where Nothing is of a murder committed over water, and the climax of The Neighbors is such a murder, half-accidental, true, but an inevitable consequence of the need for water nevertheless. This need to obtain water in the arid West has always demanded cooperation, but the need has always brought about conflict as well.
Too, Kels does not fit into the local community because of his dream as well as his needs. The other ranchers have been there for years, and they form a strong, closed body, conservative, independent, and hard. They are the very types of the Westerner in a more popular literature, the ones who have conquered and who mean to keep what they have conquered. They are the paradoxical Westerners of our actuality, too. They are the individualists who work together against the outsider. Kels cannot understand them because he is a kind of innocent, believing too strongly in the essential goodness of man.
However, the novel ends somewhat happily: Kels and his family are within limits successful and accepted. But their problems are resolved not by any change in the natural world nor, for that matter, by any change in the people. The resolution occurs because their major adversary, the rancher Phineas Roe, brings about his own defeat.
This "reconciliation" must be set against the preceding actualities, which can be seen most precisely in the two deaths in the novel. One of the Kels' daughters, Marie, is a poet, an artist. But she dies of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a disease spread by ticks. The natural world not only resists, it can also kill, destroying the artist, the very essence of the human. And it is Kels himself who, in an act of self-defense, accidentally brings about the death of Roe's blind son, Brad, in the conflict over water. Brad is innocent in a way Kels is not; Brad is a victim of others', especially his father's, greed and insensitivity.
In brief, a return to the life of the land, a return that depends upon death, is hardly a return to Eden. On its deepest, wisest, level. The Neighbors rejects the easy solution.
The Evening and the Morning (1949) is one of Sorensen's best novels. Here she creates probably her most memorable character, Kate Black Alexander. The novel is also Sorensen's richest presentation of the life of women in the Mormon world, especially the world of the Mormon village, a very puritan world. In the novel we trace the moral and emotional growth not only of Kate but also of her child and her granddaughter. But here, too, Sorensen experiments more with form than in any of her other novels. This experiment is closely related, though, to the lives of her characters.
The character of Kate Alexander is obviously drawn largely from the actual person of Sorensen's maternal grandmother, at least as the real person is re-created in Where Nothing Is Long Ago. That grandmother, and so Kate Alexander, was a marvellous person. The grandmother read the Bible for its poetry, loved the natural world deeply, "knew a thousand ways of making life better" (p. 47). But there was a paradox in her life. Although she had completely rejected her Mormon faith, even as she lay dying she kept on her temple garments, those pieces of special underclothing that Mormons wear if they have performed certain temple rites. Asked by Sorensen's mother why she did so, she responded simply that she had made a promise. There is a fine dignity of spirit here, this refusal to break a promise even when the emotional and religious system sustaining that promise has been rejected.
That quality of spirit informs the character of Kate Alexander, a complex, fascinating personality whose manifoldness reflects the world she comes from. But more to the thematic point, Kate Alexander is the very type of the outsider in Sorensen's world. The outsider here is not a simple, sympathetic rebel, however. Kate has rebelled and yet still accepts some aspects of the Mormon world. Moreover, she has not been completely innocent. Indeed, she has been headstrong, selfish, and insensitive to others.
Structurally, also. The Evening and the Morning directly calls up the Mormon world. The narrative is divided into six "Days," the Biblical week, and this form creates a living connection between the religious world and the imaginative act. Although as usual Sorensen develops the past through flashbacks which she presents as memories or slightly disguised narrations of the authorial voice, here the more experimental form allows the past to be carefully integrated into a structure that at each step illuminates the present.
As the novel begins, Kate has just returned to the small Mormon town (Manti) of her youth, of her marriage, and of her affair with Peter Jansen that has shaped her adult life. As she moves through the six days, she re-experiences her life so that it not only illuminates the present but actually becomes the present. Only by this act of re-living the past is she able to transcend it.
She moves beyond that past, and she moves her family beyond it. As the story develops, Kate, her daughter Dessie--the child of Kate's affair with Peter--and her granddaughter, Jean, awaken to a harder, more bitter, but perhaps more realistic vision of life. At the end, Kate knows that she is alone, that the past was hers but not Peter Jansen's. But her aloneness is also strength. Dessie, too, can no longer function within the old and secure pattern of her life. She must recognize that there is such a thing as passion which will always disrupt the life of conformity. Likewise, Jean goes beyond the security of childhood to find that there is disappointment and ugliness in life, that people are not the simple and pure images of her childhood.
From the first, Kate represents a threat to Dessie's security. For Kate brings with her the magic, and the temptation, of the outside world, as well as her own spirit of outspokenness and independence. It is Kate who can criticize Mormon--and Western--narrow pridefulness: "But," she says, "we shouldn't set ourselves apart because we happened to open up a particular wilderness, do you think? Other wildernesses have been opened too --when you think how many, not only land! It seems to me we should all see some of the others before we feel too singular about our own. People do what they have to do everywhere, and for the Mormons there simply wasn't anything else to do or any place else to go" (p. 206). Nevertheless, as we have remarked, there is a criticism of Kate, too, in all this. For if Dessie is disturbed by her mother and has never understood her, Dessie is so partly because Kate has never bothered to explain herself. Before the novel is over, Kate will have to recognize that she has kept too much from her daughter, that despite her legitimate motives she has perhaps denied her daughter love because of her own sense of guilt. For when Kate had left years earlier as a broken, frightened widow, she had left Dessie behind to be reared by Kate's sisters. And Dessie did not know why Kate had apparently abandoned her.
Ostensibly Kate has returned to Utah to obtain signatures that will get her a pension for her husband's service in the Black Hawk War, a minor conflict between the Indians and the Mormons in the 1860's. But actually she has returned to see Peter in order to end the "ragged, unfinished feeling she had about life" (p. 64). By flashbacks we learn Kate and Peter's story. Married at sixteen to the widowed Karl Alexander, she falls in love with Peter. Peter is married to a sister of Karl's first wife. In his youth he had rebelled against the restraints of Mormonism, but had returned to the faith. Kate becomes pregnant with Peter's child, the child who will be Dessie. Unlike Kate, Peter cannot look upon Dessie--whose conception was Kate's idea in the first place --as a symbol of their love. Indeed, he sees the child as the symbol of a great wrong. Adultery was and is a major sin in Mormon eyes. Like Erik in On This Star, Kate puts the heart first; but like Chel Bowen, Peter owes his primary allegiance to an outward show of respectability and decorum.
After Karl's death, Kate is too ill, too weak, and too guilt-ridden to fight for her rights and for those of her own children. Karl's son by his first wife takes everything, but Kate, a woman in a man's society, can do nothing. She asks Peter for help, but he cannot act. Her only recourse is to leave.
In the present, Marya Thugersen Olgood, the sister of Peter's now dead wife and of Karl's first wife, venomously reveals Kate's whole past to Ike Cluff, Dessie's genial husband. Ike shares with Kate a knowledge of the non-Mormon world. He works on the railroad, which is a possession of Gentiles and a source of possible corruption. Indeed, he drinks wine given him by the kindly, warm Italians, outsiders who are his co-workers. He is surprised to learn the truth, but he never wavers in his loyalty to Kate. Ike, not Marya, is the true Christian.
Ike, then, not Kate, tells Dessie the truth of her mother's life. Dessie's world momentarily collapses, but Ike's strength pulls her up again. Ike's tolerance, openness, and liberality -- qualities which had previously offended Dessie--are revealed to her as virtues. In accepting Kate's acts, Ike gives Dessie courage to face her new world. Nevertheless, the knowledge that Kate's past has been made ugly by people like Marya causes Ike to persuade Dessie that they should move to Salt Lake, away from the tight bigotry of these narrow villagers. The village world is Mormon, but it is also American in all its Puritanism. The city, however, is another kind of Mormonism and another kind of Americanism.
Jean, too, must undergo her trial and growth. Always daring beyond the limits set for young girls in a male society, one evening she accepts an invitation from the boy on whom she has a crush. He asks her to play games in a "forbidden" place. One of the other boys crudely paws her while her "friend" stands by. Sick with humiliation, she breaks away and races home to suffer alone. Like her grandmother, she has had to love an illusion of goodness and love.
Peter is Kate's ultimate illusion. Yet she is not fully innocent. She takes Jean with her to visit him, though she will recognize that she goes with "a sinister motive" (p. 331), for Jean is also a symbol of the relationship which she wishes to reestablish. Peter is a Mormon bishop now, proud of his office. He represents, in brief, the very stability of order that Kate has all her life both sought and rejected.
At one moment Peter asks Kate whether she wishes to stay, now that his wife is dead. But his "proposal" comes from his sense that he must pay. So she refuses with apparent nonchalance, perversely hoping that he will at least show disappointment. But he is obviously relieved since he is now free to live out his religious life. At last her eyes are opened, both to him and to herself. Going back on the train, Kate faces her reflection in the car window, seeing herself as a woman alone. The image is multiple. Even the fact that she is reflected from the window of a railroad car, that symbol of the outside world, suggests that Kate cannot be part of the Mormon world beyond the window. But in seeing herself alone, she is both pathetic and heroic. She is not a member of the church, secure and protected. She asserts her own individuality, painful as that independent stance may be.
The Proper Gods (1951) moves completely away not only from the Mormon experience but even from the American-European experience. For Sorensen's people here are the Yaqui Indians of Sonora, Mexico, and the novel's creation of their world is a brilliant act of the imagination which the author has derived from observed, i.e., largely learned, materials. Nevertheless, Sorensen found that the differences concealed the similarities. "We are a peculiar people" truly applies to both Mormons and Yaquis. Both are close-knit, religious communities with a terrible history of suffering and both are besieged by the twentieth-century world. One of the tensions of the book results from the fact that the Yaquis, like the Mormons, must be ceaselessly reminded of their sufferings in order for them to hold on to their "peculiarities."
However, if the central problem of the novel is once more the individual's relationship with the community, there is a difference in the resolution. This time the "outsider" figure, the young man Adan Savala, fits himself at last into his society, rather than rejecting it or being rejected by it. But he fits himself in by acceptance of the society's restrictions, finding that its values give to him more than he loses. None of Sorensen's Mormon protagonists can or wish to accept the restrictions of their culture. As a corollary, Adan adapts himself to the natural world in all its beauty and harshness. He does not need to conquer it. Although we have suggested that the Mormons have a close relationship with the land, they are still Americans, exploiting the land.
Adan's acceptance is not easily arrived at. All through the novel, almost to the end, he is tempted to leave the world of the Yaquis in order to make his way in the world of the Mexicans, a world of efficiency and progress, a copy of the American culture of machines and of cash relationships between people. As Mary Lythgoe points out, Adan tends to rebel "against his ceremonial heritage because it never seems to change when his experiences in the world have taught him the inevitability of changes" (Lythgoe, p. 64). Adan's ultimate choice, to be a Yaqui, living with the land, living somewhat precariously but intensely in a world of ancient order, expresses an authorial preference for the values of the spirit as opposed to those of matter. In this novel of Sorensen's own native world there is, therefore, an implied criticism. As the Mormons have prospered, they and their children have turned away from communalism and from the land. True, they have never encouraged mass industrialism, but by the time this novel was written, the Mormons were far more urban than rural. Nowhere in her works, however, is Sorensen a simple primitivist with some romantic idea that culture, especially that kind of culture which we call civilization because it is based on cities, must and can be rejected. Adan's choice is one kind of choice, not necessarily the choice for us all. That is, his story is about the search for and the finding of the proper gods for the individual. It is, in brief, the traditional quest.
The structure of the novel is built upon this quest, with all of its hesitations, back-trackings, resolutions, denials, surrenders, and acceptances. As the novel begins, Adan has just arrived in Sonora from the United States and is making his way towards the Yaqui village of Potam to join his family. But Adan is a double stranger. He must be shown the way by the Mexicans, the ancient enemies and exploiters of the Yaquis, and when he arrives at Potam he will quickly discover that he knows nothing of the customs of his ancestors.
The Mexicans are puzzled to see a man who is dressed in a United States Army uniform but who wishes to go to a Yaqui town, and they make their standard anti-Yaqui jokes. Ashamed, Adan pretends to be simply curious about the Yaquis. But, riding in the car of the Mexican Captain Casillas, he sees a company of "matachinis," male Yaqui dancers with brightly covered headdresses, feathers, and rattles--all part of a ceremonial fiesta. Adan asks to be let down in order to enter the village with them. Momentarily at least he rejects the machine for the earth.
Adan had been born in Pascua, Arizona, the Yaqui settlement near Tucson. His grandfather Achai had fled to Pascua after being sold as a slave from his native Sonora as a result of the wars waged by the Mexicans against the Yaquis. Achai, along with Adan's father and mother, their two daughters, and a son-in-law, has already returned. But Adan, who has served in the United States Army in World War II, had lingered in Los Angeles. There he was an "Indian," the victim of racial prejudice. Falling ill, he has a dream that is a kind of conversion:
believing that he is being punished for not joining his people, he promises, if he lives, always to serve the "Salvador Maestro." Later, when he learns that his mother has had a marvelous dream on the same night, his belief is reinforced. The "coincidence" of the dreams is another of the intrusions or apparent intrusions of the supernatural into our daily lives that Sorensen uses to suggest the possibility of a meaning that transcends our immediate material world. But at the same time, she takes no dogmatic stand.
To be a Yaqui in Arizona is not to be a Yaqui in Potam. Here Adan is considered as a cultural outsider who must earn his acceptance. Even his family does not quite belong, including old Achai. Moreover, Adan's errors must be shared by the entire household. He makes many mistakes, carrying with him his "Americanness." In the beginning, he holds dreams of getting more land, of planting cash crops, and of prospering. But the whole Yaqui community "shares" its land. Nobody necessarily owns a piece of earth that he may exploit for his own purposes. To own and to exploit the land is to violate the earth. His parents are refused when they sue for the hand of the beautiful Micaela for Adan, because Adan has not only fraternized with the Mexicans but has also cut and actually sold carrizo (cane). However, just as there are reprimand and punishment tor any infraction of the rules in Potam, there is also forgiveness. The Yaquis have a form that not only allows but encourages repentance and forgiveness, so long as the sinner obeys the form. The performance of the ritual is not empty. For example, Adan, breaking the rule against watering his corn during Lent, is put in the stocks. The rule is irrational, even self-defeating. But the rule is part of a whole world structure. Adan's anger is intense. It seems to him that there is no place for the individual in this repressive and ignorant society. Nevertheless, released, he is welcomed back immediately into the order of the community and into its religious life.
As the novel develops, one sees Adan alternating but slowly moving towards his people. He finds that he relates to them not only formally but also emotionally. His cousin Sixto, who has left the community, relates to Adan only through the cash nexus, a sign of what occurs when the formal relationship breaks down. Too, Adan sees that, although Sixto is free to wander, his world is without any security either physically or emotionally. Individualism is not everything.
At the last, Adan chooses Potam in order to continue the traditions for which his grandfather had fought and suffered. Achai had carried those traditions until he could pass them on to someone worthy, to an Adan who has learned their value through personal suffering. The name "Adan" itself signifies this--it is not a traditional Savala family name. Adan is really Adam, the first man, the birth of the tradition.
After The Proper Gods, Sorensen returned to the Mormon society and history for her next novel. The major action of Many Heavens (1954) takes place in the first decades of the twentieth century, with references to both earlier and later times. There is an imporant variation here: instead of locating her people in central Utah, Sorensen writes about the northern part of the state, putting her scene in Cache Valley. Although the novel gives us a pleasantly informative picture of Mormon village life, the author does not seem to feel the changed scene as deeply as she has felt the life which is derived directly from her own childhood. Two hundred miles can destroy a sense of place and therefore of actuality. This phenomenon seems peculiar, especially since The Proper Gods was so successful with its readers.
However, the central situation of the novel is quintessentially Mormon. In a sense. Many Heavens is another version of the triangle which Edith Wharton had used in Ethan Frome and the triangle which Wallace Stegner had used in Remembering Laughter. In these situations the man is torn between two women, one of whom is crippled and has claims upon him. The conflict between desire and duty and the complexity of female and male relationships are, then, the subject matter of the novel. But the concrete world here develops from that peculiar institution of polygamy which gives the work its shape and resolution.
The moral dilemmas in the novel are more complicated than those arising from a single monogamous world. The religious element raises the question of whether a person's life has any meaning. But Many Heavens also presents a woman who has to create her own life in the face of a masculine society. That is, the religious question is interwoven with the search for self-identity and with the place of women in the world.
This novel also contains a more "social" thematic matter. The main male character is a medical doctor; the main female character becomes first a midwife and then a nurse. The novel is, in part, an examination of traditional as well as changing attitudes towards the world of science. Or, rather, the novel examines how science, whose methods and ideas may undermine or deny religious and social concepts, relates to the world of the Mormons.
Structurally, the novel consists of one long flashback in which Zina, the second, polygamous wife of Dr. Niels Nielsen, obeys Niels' injunction to write their story down, telling it "straight . . . just the way it was" (p. 101). She is presenting a defense, but one more complicated than merely a defense of polygamy, since their marriage has occurred after the 1890 Manifesto. It is therefore a marriage that could be condemned not only by the Gentiles but also by most Mormons.
Zina is a believer in Mormon doctrine. In fact, in this novel none of the major characters is really an avowed unbeliever. There is a rebel, Billy Huckabee, but Billy too is a believer. His rebellion is against the element of rigid Puritanism that has always been a part of Mormon social belief. Indeed, the Manifesto was quite easily accepted by most Mormons because it coincided with the still powerful New England-New York element in their moral beliefs.
Perhaps one of the weaknesses of the novel--for it is not one of Sorensen's best--is that there is no real struggle between a strong individual and the community. Even Zina's "defense" is not really necessary. That is, even this apologia would not make the marriage more acceptable to believers or unbelievers. Moreover Zina and Niels, even if they suffer in their personal relationships, do not suffer very deeply because of their marriage.
Zina begins by describing her first view of Niels, the handsome young doctor who has momentarily returned to the valley to court Mette Horne, a daughter by polygamous marriage to the local bishop. But the more important event of the moment is that Bishop Horne has just been sent to prison for his polygamy. Horne's insisting on the continuing validity of his marriages has caused a rift in the local church. Those who believe that the Manifesto must be obeyed without question are in conflict with those diehard fundamentalists who still regard polygamy as a sacred doctrine and who think that the Manifesto represents a yielding to expediency. In speaking of her own marriage, Zina herself sums up the moral question: "It may be I'm eternally damned in that transaction, or it may be that I'm eternally blessed" (p. 350). When Zina is fifteen, Niels returns to marry Mette Horne. This is the same year in which Mette's father returns from prison, still defending polygamy: "God had spoken and how could His Word be changed at the whim of corrupt governors?" (p. 21). However, there is no question that the Utah church has rejected polygamy. Therefore the Hornes move to Canada.
Before they leave, Horne marries his daughter to Niels. The community is disturbed that the marriage is not performed for time and eternity in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City, but rather in the local ward meetinghouse. This was all Niels' idea. His actions are his revolt against Mormonism. So the community is not surprised when they learn that, in a train accident soon after the wedding, Mette's back has been broken. Mette will be an invalid for the rest of her life.
Zina becomes a school teacher, but she is not happy in this accepted feminine role. Becoming Mette's nurse, she discovers a love for nursing. Mette and Niels are excited by new developments in medicine, and Zina finds herself sharing ideas with them. Urging her to read his books, Niels attempts to break down her shyness before the tact of the human body. In this household there is an odd mixture of sexuality and the study of science.
Frightened by her and Niels' growing love for one another, Zina at last goes south to Salt Lake City to study midwifery. But suspecting something, Mette insists that she and Niels go through a temple marriage in order that they will be married in the afterlife, according to Mormon doctrine. This belief in a kind of "materiality" in the afterlife is a solution to her insecurity in this world.
But the doctrine of polygamy also offers a solution to other problems of this world, at least in the novel. When Zina graduates as a nurse and becomes in her way a kind of feminist, the Nielsens and others of her friends come south to her party. There Mette urges Zina to marry Niels. Though this is a solution, it has intense pathos. Mette says that she loves Niels, depends absolutely upon him, and cannot bear to lose him. But she also knows that he loves Zina. Therefore they can share him. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Mette has good memories of her father's polygamous household, there is no disguising her pain.
Many Heavens skirts the real problems of how the two women get along with each other after the marriage. The rest of the story is told quickly and in little detail. Zina has four children with Niels, and we can assume that her marriage is a happy one, although she does not really say so. As the novel reaches the present, they are all together, working as doctor and nurse, and he has enjoined her to tell it "straight." Finally, though, the story is somehow private. Although the larger social issues are its basis, the action of the novel does not confront them.
Written after her 1954-55 Guggenheim to Denmark, Sorensen's last Mormon novel abandons the Utah-American scene for Europe. Yet Utah stands in the background as the promised land for the Danish converts whose story makes up the novel. On the whole, the author presents Utah and Mormonism without too much criticism. For in Kingdom Come (1960), the established society is that of old Europe. The Mormons, somewhat as they were in A Little Lower Than the Angels, are an oppressed group.
Too, Sorensen turns backward to the 1850's, when to the European mind America and its West could be and were still an Edenic hope, especially for the lower classes. That is, Kingdom Come recapitulates, among other themes, the conflict of classes and the wish to escape the oppression of a hierarchical society which is a major element in the European-American dream of Eden: "When Adam delved and Eve span, / Who was then the gentleman?"
That dream of Eden impels the central male character, the young man SvendMadsen who is converted to Mormonism and who at the end of the novel sets off for Utah with his new bride,
Hanne Dalsgaard. Although it is Hanne (as in On This Star it is Chel Bowen) who is the major figure, the thematic meanings of the book can be best worked out by following Svend. Hanne is the spoiled, pampered sixteen-year-old daughter of a prosperous farmer. She will grow emotionally and morally during the novel, but she never quite grows up. The irony of the ending, in which she sets off for a polygamous Utah with Svend, is one more "personal," but not necessarily thematic, irony. However, her relationship with Svend is the central image in both the conflict of cultures and the conflict of classes.
Interwoven in this artfully complex novel is a third theme, the conflict of religious answers to the problem of evil in the world. The established Lutheran church accepts and undergirds the established societal system. It accepts the doctrine of original sin and as a consequence the need for societal structures. The Baptists, who also have a small role in Kingdom Come, are a challenge, but a challenge that can be understood. But the Mormons, foreigners with an outlandish doctrine and a belief in humankind's ability to save itself, make the basic criticism of the establishment view.
Kingdom Come has other elements, of course. Stirred by an article of William Mulder's entitled "Mormonism and Literature," Sorensen felt a call to discover the land of her ancestors. In short she performs an act of piety here (Lythgoe, p. 174), and this piety may explain the occasional softness in the novel.
The novel is based upon a permanent theme, the search for identity, in this case quite explicitly so. Svend is an orphan, having no relatives that he knows of except his brother Anders, who had disappeared years earlier. To be an orphan is to be the epitome of the individual person, but of an individual alone. Svend seeks for the reconciliation of that division, wishing both to be himself as something separate from a mere role in society and to be himself in a society, in a community. The Mormon doctrine, the American West, and the dream of Eden combine to give him a vision of that reconciliation.
As the novel begins, Svend is working on Hr. Dalsgaard's farm. His only real comfort, besides his friendship with the Mallings who also work there, is his mother's old Bible. That Bible is the sign of the religious, as well as of the social, conflicts: driven away from the farm in order to separate him from Hanne, Svend opens his Bible at random (the old practice of foretelling the future or finding the truth) and reads from the book of Job: "Behold, God is mighty and despiseth not any. . . . [He] giveth right to the poor . . ." (Kingdom Come, p. 98). The quotation offers Svend some comfort, but there is a fine irony here. Svend thinks that it is better to be poor and right than poor and wrong; and on the immediate level it is certainly so. But Svend discovers a more complex world than he can comprehend. For the passage from Job is from one of Elihu's speeches, intended to justify God's ways to man, but on the contrary it functions to emphasize the recognition that human explanations of social and cosmic evil are inadequate.
Hanne is sent to Copenhagen to live with a wealthy aunt, in order to keep her away from country temptations and in order to teach her city manners, to make her, that is, into a proper member of her class. Enlisting in the army, Svend meets a religious soldier named Simon Peter, a name almost too apt. Although a Baptist, Simon Peter indirectly leads Svend to Mormonism. At a Mormon meeting, Svend encounters a Mormon apostle named Snow. Having met Svend's brother Anders, Snow mistakes Svend for Anders. Svend is thereby reunited with his brother and sees the series of events as a sign, for it has in a sense given him back himself by giving him back a family. There is another small irony, though, in the fact that Anders does not become a convert. In one way Svend will again lose his family.
Mormonism teaches Svend that a man can elevate himself. Baptized, Svend returns to the countryside as a missionary, not as a mere lower-class laborer. The Lutheran clergy are incensed at the arrogance of these upstart missionaries who, promising the new life in a new land, are having a remarkable success. Attempting to blunt the threat to their social order, members of the ruling establishment propose to find a solution by co-opting the dangerous Svend. They suggest that, with a proper education, Svend could undoubtedly become a respected Lutheran cleric. Hanne is overjoyed, because now she can imagine Svend as acceptable in her world.
Svend wavers. In a way he is being offered the world. But in the end he is too much taken up with the dream of Eden, and he chooses the new life. The first large group of converts prepares to sail for America, and Hanne, throwing in her lot with Svend, joins him in Copenhagen. Kingdom Come closes with this image of an ending and a new beginning.
Hanne, however, used to her own way and used to a kind of power, is giving up not only the power but also the comforts of civilization in order to become the wife of a man seeking Eden. Further, he is a man whose church was, by this time, already known for its doctrine of polygamy. The book does not end, therefore, upon a simple affirmation. Like Sorensen's earlier ones, it rests in ambiguity.
Between Kingdom Come and Sorensen's latest novel, The Man with the Key (1974), there was a hiatus of almost fourteen years. During those years she published as a book the stories of Where Nothing Is Long Ago, but these had been written long before. She also published a number of children's books, none of them about Mormons. The Man with the Key has neither Mormons nor Westerners in it, although it has Danes. Never before has Sorensen moved so far from her roots.
However, the novel does not move very far away from the larger themes of her work. It is still a reflection of the values of her youth. Once more there is an outsider, in this case a Dane, Vesta Ostergaard Vest, who cannot fit into what is presented as a rather stuffy and narrow Virginia college society. Once more Sorensen presents a character's search for identity. Once more she examines and criticizes the manner in which women have to function in a man's society. For example. Vesta's grandmother, although a free enough spirit, nevertheless gets to paint only three days a week, "when a man let[s] her" (The Man with the Key, p. 6). Perhaps more important is the protest against racism that recalls the protest which Sorensen makes in the story, "The Ghost," in Where Nothing Is Long Ago and in the children's book. Around the Corner. In the story, Sorensen describes the hard insensitivity of the people of Manti to the humanity of a black man who passes through the community. The young Virginia is bewildered and angry at her people.
Vesta makes the remark we have already quoted as a metaphor for all of Sorensen's work: "If you burrow for roots, it was the fault of my grandmother" (The Man with the Key, p. 6). "Fault," however is not a meaningful word in the context of Sorensen's whole work. But it properly applies to Vesta. Obviously conceived of as a complex, vital, and sophisticated person, much like Kate Black, Vesta is at the same time curiously naive. On an island in the Caribbean when she was a child, she experienced an Eden under the aegis of her grandmother. So Vesta still believes in Eden, in her own innocence, in the innocence of the young and of the blacks in our society. But the countering complexity does not appear in this novel, i.e., the irony tends to disappear.
This novel is, then, the most contemporary, indeed the most nearly "with it" of all of Sorensen's works. She attempts to give us an image of the American world of the 1960's when all established values were being called into question. Here is a properly liberal political and moral attitude. True, Sorensen does not simply approve of Vesta or of her son. Bo. They are not presented as positive paradigms. But somehow Sorensen is not really comfortable with her subject: this world of the young is programmatic. In brief, Sorensen's ambivalent attitudes did not create a complexity but, rather, a muddle.
Told, as usual, through a combination of straight flashbacks and memories, written in a relatively plain style, Sorensen uses the first person for the first time since Many Heavens. Perhaps she is trying to involve the reader directly in the emotional world of Vesta. Structurally, the novel begins in the present, after all of the major events are over and Vesta is living with her son and his girl-friend in Massachusetts. This treatment of the chronology allows Vesta to remark upon the meanings of events as she goes along.
In summary. Vesta tells of her marriage to Will Vest and of the immense changes in her life after his death. She meets Will in Copenhagen, where he is a Fulbright scholar. Married, he brings her to the United States, and she discovers that she cannot quite fit into his world. The racial and moral prejudices of the South offend her. The faculty of Will's college, abstract and traditional, dampen her.
The years pass, and during a sabbatical Will is drowned in the Caribbean as they prepare to visit the island which Vesta knew as a child. Nature, it seems, is not Edenic always. Back in Virginia, Vesta is caught up in a love affair with Jimmie, a young black man. Jimmie is one of the most interesting and charming persons in the book, having a sense of humor, an attribute which is a marvelous contrast to Vesta's deadly seriousness. There is, indeed, a heaviness to her non-conforming attitudes.
But the social climate changes. The black activists reject the middle-class liberals. As a result, Vesta is surprised and hurt. Worse, she becomes a target for black anger; so she leaves, to live with her son. Bo, an example of enlightened youth, is delighted to learn of his mother's affair with Jimmie, who was one of Bo's childhood friends.
Vesta and Bo still believe in the garden of Eden. Although there is no doubt that Sorensen makes some criticisms of their innocence, she does not criticize with the incisiveness of her earlier books.
However, Sorensen has made her statement in all of her books -- the garden of Eden is a necessary dream, but we must not disregard actualities. Because Mormonism was her culture and because it was built on a dream of Eden, she has had a ready subject. But in most of her work she has unified subject and theme. She is, in brief, the kind of Western novelist who makes the West universal.
A Little Lower than the Angels. New York: Knopf, 1942.
On This Star. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1946.
The Neighbors. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1947.
The Evening and the Morning. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949.
The Proper Gods. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951.
Many Heavens. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1954.
Kingdom Come. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960.
The Man with the Key. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.
Curious Missie. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953.
The House Next Door (for teen-agers). New York: Scribner's, 1954.
Plain Girl. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956.
Miracles on Maple Hill. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1957.
Lotte's Locket. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1964.
Around the Corner. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
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Where Nothing Is Long Ago (Short story collection). New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1963. Stories were originally printed in The New Yorker.
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