A Mormon Sense of Place, as Seen by a Non-Mormon

A Mormon Sense of Place, as Seen by a Non-Mormon August 11, 2013

Mark Twain was perhaps the first of outside visitors to Mormon Utah, arriving with pen in hand, eager to give account of the strangeness and oddity of Mormon community life. For a Mormon writer like myself who was born in Utah but raised and educated on both coasts, I can sympathize with the difficulty of penetrating such peculiar communities that are seemingly out of sync with mainstream America. Living as I do in a city that is the third largest in the state of Utah and yet close to 90% LDS, I recognize that this is not a typical American experience. But it is also true that probably no group of people makes more fun of Provo than Mormons themselves. Indeed, Utah often feels divided by the equivalent of a Mormon family feud, split by our own ambivalence about ourselves.

But most of the time, I feel that Utah’s unusual sense of place is worthy of wonder and I welcome the chance for those outside the community to see it as I do, because in my eyes it seems so marvelous. Of course at times I feel the frustrations that come with living in a place of exceptional homogeneity and with these frustrations comes the temptation to see Mormon communities, embedded as they are in the landscape and within their own cultural language, as one might see animals in a zoo—as admirable, perhaps, but also as exotic types, fenced off from the lived reality of the writer and, for that matter, the rest of America. But ultimately as a Mormon Utahan, it is often hard to feel inspired by reading accounts of life in Utah, in the small towns as well as in the cities. This is not because I am immune to criticism but because it is tiring to read yet another account written by someone who has not lived intimately and lovingly among the communities about which they write and who can’t quite hide their condescension. I think of Marc Reisner’s account of Mormon environmental shortcomings in Cadillac Desert, for example. I was more sympathetic to his criticisms of Mormon zeal for environmental engineering before I read his summary that Mormons had “banished themselves” to Utah. Or Bill McKibben’s account of Mormon settlement of small towns in Utah, in his otherwise excellent book The End of Nature, as a merely self-imposed test to see what we could make of the desert. It was as if they had never spoken to a Mormon or read anything at all about Mormon history. Until recently the best exception to this rule was Stephen Trimble’s book, Bargaining for Eden, a labor of love and devotion to a state he loves, enough that he would spend years getting to know the humanity and complexity of the culture that seemingly has control of the state’s environment.

Former Senator Bill Bradley once said, about racial tensions in our country, that if we didn’t have a friend of a different race, we were part of the problem. In Utah, the divisions run deep–especially over religion, the environment, partisan affiliation, sexual orientation, and even university affiliation. So I would submit that if religiously active and especially politically conservative Mormons don’t have a friend who sees the world differently, then they are only helping to create the divisions that have beset this state. Likewise, how many progressives in Utah, especially those without a religious orientation, are not just friendly towards but friends with said Mormon conservatives?

I have always been an idealist when it comes to literature. I believe we look to literature to offer us insight into our lives that we otherwise cannot gain and to therefore help us to imagine a broader and more profound meaning of community. New and outside perspectives are therefore vital. But great literature does more than criticize. A more exceptional achievement of art is to see the profound and common humanity not despite but because of the cultural particulars of a place. Indeed this is what characterizes the great literature that has emerged from many of the nation’s most unusual places.

What has inspired these thoughts is Liz Stephens’s memoir, The Days Are Gods, which, in my judgment, is pitch perfect. She understands the strangeness of her pursuit of her own (and the persistence of our particularly American) Western mythology—a deep-seated feeling that she must uproot herself from the fast pace of life in Los Angeles and launch her own proverbial return to the land where she can live simply, where animals and open space are abundant, and where people live rooted lives of simple and shared values. She thematizes the odd relationship this then gives her to the small Mormon community of Wellsville in Cache Valley where she spends three years. She is not afraid to pose the needed questions about this community—about its homogeneity and its seeming superficial awareness of the pain experienced by those of sexual or ethnic difference in their midst, for example—but her own awareness and sensitivity to difference is not her trump card used against these people. For one, she knows them because she has invested every effort to establish relationships with them. She writes: “I do not think the locals are cute and a charming part of the scenery. I think they carry within them something magic, as do, it turns out, people everywhere who have stayed still in one place long enough to accrue this grace: a deep sense of place that I wish I could beg, barter, or steal off of them” (122). She admires their relationship to the land and to animals, their extraordinary intimacy and trust, the wandering, playing children for whom everyone bears responsibility, and their simple pleasures, values that she also understands that places like Los Angeles, for all their multicultural understanding, have long since lost or never had. And she wants these values for herself and her husband, and their Utah-born daughter, and she is willing to work for them, most notably in her determination to understand the community and its history, in her search for her own genealogical story that stems from agricultural life in Oklahoma, and ultimately in her loving tribute to the land and the people that is her memoir. Her writing is a measure of her capacity for wonder in the face of each miraculous day, and this wonder does not exclude, as it often does for writers less patient with Utah’s culture, the human faces that make up her exceptional environment.

But neither places nor people are stone monuments; they are more like slow moving rivers of change. For this reason, the book stands as a bittersweet memorial to the work it takes to have a sense of place. I say bittersweet because she sees the town changing before her eyes, becoming less rooted and less rural every day. The book serves as a warning for me that our own Mormon self-ambivalence might fail to appreciate what we have before it is gone for good. How many more big box stores and restaurant chains will we welcome here before we have lost our own relationship to place? How much more consumerism can we indulge in before it is all gone? Stephens’s book is also bittersweet because we discover that ultimately she must leave the town and the state, a poignant reminder that a sense of place in America today may have to become portable, a way of moving from one place to the next in an increasingly and perhaps irrevocably mobile world. At the very least, a sense of place must be forged with the kind of work she did to belong in Utah no matter where we find ourselves.

For this reader, there is the additional sadness of my home state of Utah losing an outstanding voice. Stephens writes with a light touch, with humor and self-deprecation, and with prose that falls as gently as snow in the still air. The Days Are Gods is a lovely book, worthy of the extraordinary place that inspired it. For Utah’s sake, I selfishly hope for Stephens’s prodigal return.[1]


[1] A shorter version of this review will appear in Western American Literature.

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