On the Road to Heaven: An Autobiographical Novel
Zarahemla Books, 2007
Back in the early 1970s, when I was in fourth grade or so, one of my
favorite books was My Side of the Mountain, by Jean George--a book
about a teenage boy who went to live on his own, in the mountains of
upstate New York. Granted, living off the land wasn't something I
ever had the skills to do--I never even made Tenderfoot in Boy
Scouts, for goodness' sake--but growing up loving the woods and
mountains of western Oregon, I used to fantasize about it, even while
knowing that between mission and college and all those other things
that faithful Mormon boys were supposed to do, it was never going to
happen to me.
Given that background, it's fairly easy to see why--when I heard
about On the Road to Heaven, a book about a boy who grew up in (and
largely on) the mountains of Colorado in the 1960s, and then made the
transition from eco-hippie to Mormon--I knew I had to read it. And I
was right. Newell's experience of balancing Mormonism and
environmentalist counter-culturalism may have been more dramatic than
mine, and sequential rather than simultaneous, but still there was a
lot I found to identify with.
This book combines two classic Mormon genres: the conversion story
and the mission story. In summary, it's an account of the spiritual
journey of a boy who grew up with a love and reverence for nature,
influenced by native American perspectives (at least in some of their
better-known versions), who hitchhiked and used marijuana with his
friends and experimented with hippie culture, only to find it
ultimately unsatisfying. Somewhere along the way, he acquired a
Mormon girlfriend--rebelling against her own convert family
background--and the two of them fell in love, mixed up though their
lives were in other ways. (And whose teenage life isn't, in some way
or another?) And then he encountered the missionaries and joined the
Church, and she (independently) became active again, and they broke
up--sort of--and each served a mission, and then came home and got
married. The end.
It's a well-crafted story arc, showing the passion of the boy's
first, early yearnings for spirituality, and how the path that led
him to Carlos Castaneda ultimately was the same path that led him to
Mormonism, and eventually to preaching the gospel to poverty-stricken
Colombians whose very culture seemed to hold them back from achieving
better things. For Newell's character, white shirts and ties may have
replaced tie-dye, but not as a repudiation; rather, as a destination,
a fulfillment of sorts. (Okay, I admit it: I don't remember offhand
if he ever mentions wearing tie-dye, and I'm not going to skim
through the book to find out. But hey, it works on a symbolic level,
And it was very good, and a most enjoyable read. Satisfying, and
hatred-inducing, in an envious-writer sort of way.
I do, however, have two complaints about the book, two things that
keep me from enjoying it as much as I otherwise would.
The first is a certain hesitancy, a kind of jerkiness in the writing,
particularly in the first part of the book. Mostly, I like the
informal, highly personal style. Still, there are times when it seems
a bit self-conscious. I can't decide if that's because the words
haven't been polished quite enough, or because they come across
sometimes as too polished--deliberately affecting a tone that
should come naturally. Maybe it's a matter of voice. During the first
part of the book, is the person we're hearing the naive hick/hippie
teenager, or the middle-aged adult looking backward? It's not always
The second has to do with the book's basic genre. I know that
"autobiographical novel," paradoxical though it may sound, is indeed
a perfectly acceptable genre. It's just that I don't like it.
Part of narrative--particularly first-person narrative, which this
most decidedly is--is that it invites us to get to know the person
behind the "I," holding out the promise of a potential connection
with someone. I'm perfectly fine with that "someone" being a
fictional character; some of my best friends have names like Frodo
Baggins. Still, it's important to me to know just whose
acquaintance I'm being asked to make. Frankly, the autobiographical
novel seems a bit like a copout: claiming the moral and narrative
authority of "I-was-there," without making any commitment to live up
to the accompanying responsibility to tell the truth as best you can.
That makes me uneasy.
And so I like the "Everon 'Kit' West" of the story, and I can't help
but think I'd like Coke Newell too, but I can't really be sure. All I
really know for sure that's true about the protagonist-as-Coke-Newell
(from the About the Author page at the back of the book) is that he
was indeed "a former tree-hugging, Zen-spouting, vegetarian Colorado
mountain hippie" who joined the LDS Church, as described in the book.
All I know for sure that's not true is that his name wasn't Everon
West (or "Waist" as the Colombians pronounced it). Everything in
between is, presumably, negotiable. Just how negotiable is unclear.
I'm sure some people will want to call me to task for imposing an
unacceptable limitation on the creative choices of the artist. My
point, though, isn't that Newell shouldn't have done whatever he did
in this book. Rather, I'm simply saying that the choices he made got
in the way of my connection with the story. Even just an Author's
Note explaining the nature of his fictionalizing--Did he change the
names? Did he combine characters and events? Did he switch locations?
Did he make up events out of whole cloth?--would have helped me sit
back and enjoy it, clunky though such things (author's explanatory
notes, that is) often are.
One possible reason for the fictionalizing becomes evident in the
latter part of the book. Like the character in some kind of
missionary epic, Coke's main character lives through--or knows other
missionaries who experience--most of the classic missionary
experiences, both good and bad: the miraculously refound golden
contact, healings, being taken for CIA agents, having girls put their
hands down his pants, punching out someone, getting tapeworms and
losing a life-threatening number of pounds, encountering intensely
envious and bizarrely affectionate anti-Americanism, eating the
mysterious and horrible local food, eating the miraculously wonderful
peanut butter from home, experiencing the gift of tongues,
missionaries going on dates with local members, and much more.
While it's possible that the real-life Elder Newell really did
experience all these things, it would certainly be understandable if
he decided to fictionalize--just for the purpose of getting all the
good stuff into one story. On the whole it works, at least in part
because despite all the experiences he goes through, "Elder West"
remains a believable character, well-meaning and committed but also a
fallibly human boy/young man on the cusp of adulthood--like most of
the missionaries I knew, and indeed like the missionary I remember
being, though my mission wasn't (thankfully) half as exciting as his.
This, indeed, is for me the great strength of the book, despite its
mostly minor flaws: that it recapitulates, in a realistic way, so
much that is real and and true and typical about my own experience,
and I think that of many other Latter-day Saints of my own age and
generation, despite--or perhaps because of--all the ways in which
Newell's narrative is specific to one particular character leading
one particular life. Sure, he served his mission in Colombia, not
Italy (an important difference--I can still remember my native
Italian teacher in the Missionary Training Center responding, when
asked if it was okay to drink the water in Italy, "We are not South
America"). And he was a convert to the Church, while I was raised
Mormon. And I never tried drugs, and I didn't even have a girlfriend
until my sophomore year in college, after I got back from my mission.
Still, Kit West's experiences resonate with me. On the whole, this is
a book I wouldn't hesitate to put in front of my non-Mormon friends
and say, "Here. Read this. Kit's story isn't mine, but this will give
you some idea of what being a Mormon felt like during my growing up,
and part of why I'm a Mormon still."