Andrew R. Hall
Brigham Young University Family Studies Center, 2001.
Suggested retail price: $10.95 (US)
On my recent visit to BYU I looked through the shelf of Mormon fictionat the bookstore for new titles to last me for the next year in Japan.It wasn't a very inspiring collection, mostly a lot of the same kindof things from the same publishers. I grabbed two recent titles byauthors that I know and like, and figured that would be it. But thenI noticed this interesting little volume. It was different, it turnedout to be a good read, and its very publishing gives some hope for thefuture of Mormon literature.
First, let me mention the background of the Novels For the Next GreatFilms series, based on the foreword and afterward in the book(although I haven't seen the new Irreantum yet, I understandthat the novel is excerpted there, so you might already know allthis). The genesis of the series was a Spring 2000 Philosophy andLiterature class at BYU. "Philosophy professor Dennis Packard, aidedand abetted by his colleague Charles Cranney of BYU Publications &Graphics, taught an innovative eight-week class to writers, directors,designers, and philosophy majors. The writers wrote, the directorsand designers made film trailers, and the philosophy majors tried tomake sense of it all. Amazingly, when it was all over, the talentedand extraordinarily quick Gordon Laws had nearly completed the firstdraft of this novel. Understanding the power of a great story, familylife professor Terry Olson and his department joined in the adventureby hosting an evening reading the best of the class. Now, with thegenerous support of the Family Studies Center and another year offine-tuning, My People is ready." The goal of the series is to"revive the film-novelist art." "Novels like The MalteseFalcon by Dashiell Hammett, Of Mice and Men by JohnSteinbeck, and The Misfits by Arthur Miller easily adapt tofilm. Short, vivid, and intense, such novels engage us continually inpicturing and interpreting scenes. They open our eyes and pierce ourhearts."
Wow. I've never even heard of the genre of "film-novels". But itsounds good to me. I wonder how dedicated the Family Studies peopleare to this project, will we be seeing very many more of these books?I believe that this is the first work of fiction that BYU haspublished (besides the undergraduate literary journal) since the early70s or so. I went to a couple of other bookstores in Utah, and didn'tsee it anywhere else, so I'm afraid they aren't publicizing it at all.
So, how about the book? I liked it a lot, with a few reservations.For a first novel (novella, really), it really is quite remarkable.It is the story of Ruben, a tough leader of a East L.A. gang whobecomes interested in the Church after finding his dead brother's Bookof Mormon. At the same time Ruben is going through the conversionprocess, confrontations with a neighboring gang intensify, brought onin part by his young friend Juan's relationship with a girlfriend ofthe other gang's leader. So just as Ruben is becoming converted to anon-violent world view, he is forced to continue playing his role as aprotector to his neighborhood and friends. He tries new ways to actin that role, based on what he learned, but is only partiallysuccessful.
Laws certainly doesn't take any easy ways out, which I admire.Ruben's conversion does not solve his problems, it doesn't take himout of his dangerous neighborhood, and it doesn't expunge his sense ofresponsibility to his friends who continue to live violent lives. Hedecides to act in ways which neither his gang friends nor his Churchfriends could fully support. I think Laws does an excellent job atdepicting the struggle of a character caught between two worlds.
I don't really understand the tropes of the film-novelist genre, but Ikind of got an idea through this book. The prose is mostly dialogueand actions, with only brief interior monologues, avoiding anythingthat couldn't be easily made into a film. I suppose the danger ofthis kind of novel to not give the characters enough depth. Thatisn't a problem here. Not that it is all action, Laws does a good jobat pacing, mixing the meditative moments with the action well, keepingme very interested. I certainly could see it as a film.
Probably the weakest parts of the book are when Ruben's girlfriend,Maria, enters the scene. I never really understood what she expectedof him, and many of their dialogues made little sense. In generalLaws plays it cool by not giving the reader any background informationon the story, just throwing us in the middle of ongoing relationshipsand conversations, like a cool noirish-type movie would do. In mostcases this works well, but it doesn't for the Maria scenes. What theheck are they talking about? Overall the writing is good, notremarkable, but good.
In any case, good for Laws for doing something different. Acompletely unromanticized story about L. A. Mexican-Americans, ganglife, a Norwegian missionary who had once been a member of a skinheadgang, a key scene placed in drainage ditch=97this is the kind ofgrittiness that very rarely is seen in Mormon literature (although notgrittiness in a coarse sense, there is violence but no bad language,some sensual dancing but no sex scenes). Give it a try.
Quotes from the Back Cover
|Gordon Laws, an exciting youngtalent who knows the territory, puts East L.A. gang life rightin the reader's face. What is most appealing, however, is thehumanity of the young gangsters, especially of Ruben, who wantsto escape the life. Can missionaries help, or does organizedreligion only serve the middle class? The conclusions to thatquestion are thoughtful, realistic, and touching.|
|My People is an intense, taut, and powerful story presentedin a series of graphic, gripping scenes. Gordon Laws's novellais a ray of light in contemporary Mormon fiction, a work whichis at once probing and mature, well-wrought and faithful,literately sophisticated yet gospel-principled and centered,"of good report and praiseworthy."|
|--Richard H. Cracroft|
About the Series
There is a website for the series and class, lifesong.byu.edu. There are a fewother stories there, by other students in the class I assume. Also,they promise that a future book in the series will be a novel by theestablished Mormon author Michael Fillerup. That is interesting,since his work tends to be rather interior. One last thing, thewebsite says the class used a recently published textbook by SibylJohnston called Where the Stories Come From: Beginning to WriteFiction. Johnston is a Mormon author whose stories have appeared inthe Greening Wheat and Bright Angels and Familiars anthologies. Shealso played a key role in Martha Beck's non-fiction book ExpectingAdam.
Andrew Hall Wenatchee, WA
© 2001 Andrew R. Hall < firstname.lastname@example.org >