A debut novel follows two young Mormon missionaries in the late 1970s.
When the reader first meets narrator Kenny Feller, he is 20 months into his two-year commitment of finding converts for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Proceeding with his project in Sedro-Woolley, Washington, Feller is largely unsuccessful. As he explains, “In my entire twenty months sharing the gospel, my companions and I had shepherded a total of two seekers into the waters of baptism. Two.” In August 1979 he is teamed up with a new partner, Jared Baserman from Idaho. Wisecracking (“You never knew, with Jared, if you were walking, unwittingly, into a punch line”) and flippant, Jared boasts a well-meaning but financially inept father and a marijuana-loving sister. Sent on his mission as a way to redeem his family, Jared is hardly the squeaky-clean figure one might expect from a proselytizing Mormon. Forming a friendship, Kenny and Jared face a world that often displays hostility to their church and challenges their personal beliefs. Detailing the aspects of the seemingly impossible missionary process (such as encouraging potential converts to “read the Book of Mormon—all of it, preferably, or at least some of its choicest selections—and then ask Heavenly Father to convey to them a testimony of its truthfulness”), the book provides a wealth of information on problems common in the field. Persuading strangers to take up a religion is certainly no easy task and the narrative effectively treats its protagonists as multifaceted characters. Exploring thornier issues of Mormon Church beliefs, like the rule that black men could not hold the priesthood until 1978, the story remains investigative without being overly facetious. But descriptions can prove less than illuminating, such as when a character looks at Jared “with his eyes bugging out of his head.” But on the whole, the plot moves quickly despite such distractions. While the book’s conclusion, particularly as Jared becomes ever stranger, seems self-evident, the tale’s excitement comes in the characters and their struggles along the way.
An unlikely take on the buddy story, this book offers a conventional plot but strong, nuanced characters.