Heaven Knows Why!
Samuel W. Taylor
Aspen Books (Murray, UT), 1994.
Suggested retail price: $7.95 (US)
Samuel Taylor wrote this book in 1948 before going on to a successfulcareer in Hollywood where he was the brainchild behind The AbsentMinded Professor and the films that derived from it, including therecent film Flubber starring Robin Williams. Though this bookrevolves around distinctly Mormon characters and situations, it waswritten for a general audience.
The setting is a generic desert valley somewhere in Utah, set in apost-WWII timeframe. The characters are a vivid assortment of ruralUtah types. This is a farce, a comedy of errors revolving around themisadventures that follow a poorly planned visitation from beyond thegrave by proud old Moroni Skinner to his shiftless, lazy (butgood-hearted) grandson, Jackson Whitetop. Moroni Skinner prompts youngJackson to seek after his love, the bishop's daughter, and before it'sover Jackson ends up dealing directly with The Trouble, along-standing feud between those who live at the north end of thevalley and those who live at the south end over how (and where) theMormon chapel should be built.
This is a fun, energetic story that's an absolute joy to read. Itpokes good-natured fun at rural Utah Mormons while telling anengaging, entertaining story about young Jackson Whitetop'smisaadventures while trying to do the right thing as he understandsit. The writing is smooth and vivid, and the situations are just plainfun. The venerable Richard Cracroft once declared it "The funniestMormon novel," and I'm not sure I can argue with him. Thoughoriginally written over fifty years ago, the humor stands the test oftime.
If you can get a copy of this book, read it. It's a roaring success ateverthing it attempts to do and a prime example of what Mormon authorsare capable of when they relax a little and are willing to recognizethe foibles and oddities of Mormon culture.
Normally this is where I would end my review because there isn't muchelse to say about the novel -- it's a great read for anyone, butespecially for Utah Mormons. The book succeeds on its own terms anddeserves to be read.
But in the author's introduction he asks some questions that I thinkought to be addressed. He generally opines the often negative responsehe received from Mormons when this novel was first serialized inColliers and expresses some frustration at the Mormons' apparentinability to laugh at themselves. He says:
This was my first novel, and one thing I've learned since then is that Mormons are passionately proud of being the Peculiar people, but heaven help the author who points out the peculiarities. .& .& .
We can sit around all night howling about Word of Wisdom stories -- but should we put them in print? .& .& .
[Perhaps] in the intervening decades the Mormons have matured to the point where we can now chuckle rather than bristle at some of the foibles and conceits of our culture.
If not, heaven help me.
Since this novel was originally published Mormons apparently havegained something of a sense of humor about themselves. Books like"Paradise Vue" and others have succeeded in the last two decades wherethey did not succeed earlier. We may not have a lot of humor aboutourselves, but we do have some.
So why did the author apparently receive so much resistance to thisnovel when it was first published? While it's clearly out of date nowand falls into a category of novel that can be wistful and humorousabout the distant past (thus making it less immediate, relevant, andtelling), when this novel was first serialized in 1948 it was quitetimely.
One always hates to get too serious about a comedy, but I think thereare some aspects of this novel that would have made it hard forMormons to accept when it was first published. Everyone had a problemwith the Word of Wisdom and was a closet coffee drinker, from thebishop to Jackson Whitetop to the bishop's daughter. Everyone.
While their faith was very pragmatic and sensible, not a singlecharacter expressed a strong testimony in the literal truth of therestored Church -- something that sounds like an apology for ourbeliefs. This attitude is exemplified by the bishop's wife, BerylJensen, who said:
Beryl Jensen had lived the gospel, and she felt it was a way of life that made people better. But she'd never put too much stock in it as the word of God. That business of Joseph Smith and the golden plates had always been just a bit too much to swallow. It seemed to her that Joseph made entirely too many mistakes to have been guided by the Lord. .& .& .
She defended the gospel. But she didn't really have the faith. (49-50)
The result is a story that only reveals the foibles andconceits of Mormon culture without showing any of the more intimatethings that also characterize what it means to be Mormon. The story*only* shows those who are silly or arrogant or dishonest or narrowminded without allowing a single Mormon to be an ordinary human.
Of course that's a feature of the screwball comedy -- everyone's goofy,and for there to be a comedy of errors there have to be a lot oferrors. Such stories are not intended to show anyone as normal, butrather to expose all of the potential silliness inherent in thesituation. It's comedy, not history. And certainly not realism.
But the author asked, and I think this is part of the answer. When allyou show are the warts -- albeit with humor and style -- a people whoalready feel besieged by negative public opinion will tend to see onlyan exaggeration of their faults, not the humor that should be takingthe sting out of those faults. To learn to laugh at oneself is hard;it requires that defensiveness be set aside so that we can laughtogether. As long as that defensiveness remains, the target of humorwill feel laughed at and demeaned. Regardless of the author's harmlessintent.
If Taylor had included fully believing, normal Mormon characters wouldit have appealed more to Mormon readers? Maybe. But it probablywouldn't have been nearly as funny, and would have enjoyed lessgeneral success. Should the Mormons have accepted it more than theyapparently did? Probably. But in 1948 Mormons weren't known for theirability to laugh at their own errors; they wanted general acceptanceso bad that they saw any pratfall as a blemish on their goodname. Their beliefs were not a joke and they didn't care for anyportrayal of them as such.
Samuel Taylor wrote a very funny book that deserves to be read andappreciated by Mormons everywhere. It's slick, well plotted, fastpaced, and is generally everything that any reader could hope for in acomedy of errors. The author was clearly stung by its limitedacceptance when it was first released. I hope Mormons have learnedmore of a sense of humor since then, because it would be a shame ifpeople couldn't appreciate the quality of this fine comedy by one ofMormondom's first successful general market writers.
© 2002 Scott Parkin < email@example.com >