Circumventing the paragons espoused by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Townsend (Marginal Mormons, 2012, etc.) returns with a collection of short stories that consider the imperfect, silenced majority of Mormons, who may in fact be its best hope.
Beyond an enigmatic cadre often in the national spotlight, there are regular Mormons; they’re anything but easy to define, but Townsend portrays the less publicized lives they lead. In “The Removal of Debra,” college student Gary receives important advice from his ailing mother, who, after receiving a terminal diagnosis, has been consumed by regret. To God’s own glorification, she implores Gary, pursue authenticity over obedience. “An Igneous Gravestone” also champions instinctual morality over doctrinal conformity, as its protagonist dares to defy his tyrannical mother in the name of preserving a healthy family. “Indian Giver” confronts the church’s ingrained racism: Steve Bitterwater responds to his wife’s race-based acrimony with an inspired request—he wants a gift back. Such tales, the gems of this collection, demystify Mormonism and humanize its sometimes-maligned adherents. Townsend’s characters wrestle with serious questions of faith, but they’re also hearteningly ordinary. They struggle with eating disorders, sexual orientation, questions of virtue and vice, and with their prescribed gender roles. Those unable to comply with the demands of the church often find themselves worrying ad nauseam over the states of their souls, yet the reader is made to recognize the implicit honor in regretful defiance. Not all of Townsend’s stories hit such high notes. Miranda, the capricious and neurotic husband-hunter who appears in three of these narratives, seems burdened less by church expectations than by immaturity. Her recurrence becomes almost disruptive, as does the fact that the vast majority of these tales close with characters either smiling or crying. In “The Deserter,” the impetus behind a young girl’s epiphany strains credulity, and “Homework for Hitler,” otherwise one of the collection’s more magnetic offerings, is undermined by its needlessly provocative moniker. Nonetheless, the strongest moments here leave readers regretting the church’s willingness to marginalize those who best exemplify its ideals: those who love fiercely despite all obstacles, who brave challenges at great personal risk and who always choose the hard, higher road.
Well-laid but sometimes uneven steps toward understanding conflicted believers.