Monday, December 29, 2014

A Domestic Mystery and a Mormon Drama

Mette Ivie Harrison,The Bishop's Wife

Carrie Helm is missing. Her community never realized anything was wrong, until one morning, her husband and daughter knocks on the bishop’s door, looking terrified that their seemingly good Mormon family is in freefall. Now Linda Wallheim, the bishop’s wife and mother of his five sons, finds herself torn. While her husband organizes the community’s spiritual confrontation, Linda channels her inner Miss Marple, testing evidence and asking questions a sedate Utah town doesn’t want asked.

Reading the official description, you’d expect a Mormon version of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl reset amid a religious community that Americans widely know, but largely misunderstand. Not so. Though packaged as a mystery, this novel is essentially a character drama. Carrie’s disappearance upsets first-person protagonist Linda’s life, but that life continues amid her community’s continuing commitments and her personal struggles with Mormonism’s patriarchy. If Jan Karon rewrote her Mitford novels as thrillers, they’d resemble this.

Poor Linda cannot absorb the Helms family’s struggle. Husband Jared gives conflicting signs, first controlling and harsh, next a loving father and bereaved victim of media swarms. Carrie, vanished before page one, could be terrified for her safety and, in Mormon cosmology, her eternal soul; she could, however, suffer terrible paranoid delusions and tyrannize her family. Her crusading father and cowed, shrinking mother don’t simplify matters. And then there’s five-year-old Kelly, driven pillar to post.

But life continues amid this folderol. As bishop’s wife, Linda serves as spiritual surrogate mother to tiny Draper, Utah, thirty minutes outside Provo. So when a teenage wedding causes unexpected trouble at the bride’s house, Linda provides comfort. When a go-getter young wife admits her untreatable infertility, in a church that prizes marriage and childbearing above all else, Linda faces questions she cannot answer. Linda’s church role piles massive responsibility atop her already expanding doubts.

Mette Ivie Harrison
See, Linda’s growing dissatisfied with Mormonism’s staunch, implacable absolutism. Though confident in her faith, her church’s rigid temple system, its patriarchal leadership system, and its demand for female submission even in the hereafter, don’t jibe with Linda’s ethics. A self-professed Obama voter and social moderate, Linda faces challenges from a church hierarchy that remains essentially unchanged since before the Civil War. How can she comfort bereaved parents when her church considers her role basically invisible?

Harrison provides an insider’s view of a powerful but widely misunderstood religion. Critics disparage Mormonism’s sometimes inexplicable beliefs, deafness to science, and general insularity. But Harrison demonstrates how shared beliefs, and their public expression, bind individuals together, making them a people. Emile Durkheim wrote that religion unifies the people first, satisfies their spiritual hunger only later. Mormons, like Amish or Hasidim, are a people as much as a faith. Harrison shows that from ground level.

Readers anticipating excitement and Hollywood-style suspense may find Harrison’s approach trying. Carrie Helm remains missing for chapter upon chapter, and Linda coaxes information from sources incrementally, buying their support with home-baked cinnamon rolls and sympathy. Harrison’s pace runs slower, her narrative runs talkier, than typical paperback mysteries. For Harrison, though, the story’s heart lies outside the unresolved enigma which kick-starts her story. Characters, and the conflicts that drive them, motivate Harrison more than boilerplate thrills.

Therefore, readers weaned on gritty backdrops, physical confrontations, and “just the facts” dialog could find this book jarring. Despite its noir-ish premise of the wronged wife and the morally ambiguous husband, Harrison’s gentle tone, and Linda’s ruminative narration, give this novel an almost Jane Austen texture. Linda romances her husband, but sex is always implicit. Jared Helm might be abusive, but it’s primarily verbal. and religious. Linda, as amateur sleuth, would rather think before acting.

Reading this, I recalled the oversized paperback mysteries, written primarily by women, marketed in Christian bookstores nationwide. Though some crime generally initiates the story, these novels would rather immerse readers in their protagonists’ lives, eschewing nightmarish thrills in favor of deep empathy. I confess, those novels, and this one, aren’t my taste. But why should they be? Should everyone like only what I like?  I’m not arrogant enough to consider myself the yardstick of merit.

For its intended audience, this novel is quite good. Harrison creates a viewpoint narrator, and a community rife with hidden struggles, that her intended audience can vanish into for hours at once. Being largely unaware of Mormon culture, I cannot say whether Harrison has a waiting market of readers for this novel. But judging by the largely female, largely Protestant audience gobbling up similar character mysteries, she probably does. Harrison gives them what they want.

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