Saints begins in Manchester, England, in 1829, as John Kirkham prepares to abandon his family. Born into money, John's social status has severely declined as his family's wealth is used to pay off his father's gambling debts. Now, he is forced to push a broom in another man's store, making barely enough to afford his "definitely middle-bordering-on-lower class" (12) life. Tired of his bleak existence, John sneaks out in the middle of the night, leaving his family to fend for itself. Stung by her husband's betrayal, Anna forces herself to be strong for her three - soon to be four - children. She moves them into a cheap, filthy apartment, hires herself out as a maid and accepts 13-year-old Robert's offer to go to work in one of the city's many factories. Their meager paychecks aren't enough to stave off their impending poverty, so 10-year-old Dinah heads for the factory as well. When Anna's newborn dies, she falls into a severe fever, which keeps her from earning her wage; not knowing what else to do, Robert sends his 7-year-old brother, Charlie, to live with Mr. Whitesides, a repugnant man who promises to make the boy a chimney sweep. After being beaten and molested, Charlie escapes Whitesides, but can't forgive his brother for "selling" him to the monster. Although the Kirkhams' situation eventually improves, the trials do not cease. Headstrong Dinah resists her boss's advances, only to find her reputation ruined, a situation which lands her in a loveless marriage. To complicate matters even more, John returns, begging for forgiveness and mercy.
In the middle of all this turmoil comes another challenge - the charming Heber Kimball. Kimball is an American missionary who can "charm the shingles off the roof in a rainstorm" (192). He comes to Manchester preaching a new religion, urging residents to accept Mormonism and be baptized. So earnest is the preacher that Charlie invites him to the home he shares with his mother. There, Charlie, Anna and Dinah feel the Lord's Spirit and decide to be baptized. Despite the trio's happiness with their new religion, there are obstacles - namely, Robert and Dinah's husband, who thinks the family has gone mad. When they decide to emigrate to America to join the Latter-Day Saints in Illinois, Robert forbids it. Still, some of the family departs on a boat, despite the fact that some are forcibly left behind. In Illinois, Charlie and Dinah find their own destinies. Charlie's lies in developing factories in Nauvoo, while Dinah's future seems to be as a "spiritual wife" to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. Her acceptance of polygamy is the turning point in her life, and the remainder of the book is basically about her experience as a plural wife. The rest of the family's stories are told as well, but most of the text is about Dinah and her relationship with Joseph Smith.
The first third of the book was absolutely riveting, with horrific descriptions of the smoky factories and abject poverty that defined England's Industrial Age. Card evoked such a desperate atmosphere that I despaired for the poor Kirkhams. Even when some of their pain lifted, I was still mesmerized by the story. However, the tale seemed to lose direction after placing the Kirkhams in Nauvoo, but I was still interested enough to finish the book. While I have many issues with the novel, I have to admit that Card knows how to tell a story. Although I tried to put this novel down several times, I kept coming back to it until I finally turned the last page.
One of my big beefs with this book is the character of Dinah Kirkham Smith. To put it bluntly, I couldn't stand her. From the beginning of the book, I thought she was a selfish, stubborn, intellectual snob. I understand Card's intention - he was trying to create a strong, enlightened woman who would never be submissive enough to accept polygamy unless it came as an edict from God. He succeeded, but he also created an obstinate feminist who is so conceited that she believes no one is as wise as she is, prophet or not. In fact, no other character even comes close - her brothers are either prideful (Robert) or slow (Charlie); her parents are sinful (John) or weak (Anna); her first husband (Matt) doesn't understand poetry like she does, her second husband (Joseph Smith) is so trusting he doesn't see a wolf in sheep's clothing even though Dinah, of course, warns him; Emma Smith is moody and cold; Sally Ann is not intelligent enough; and on and on ... I found her incredibly irritating, which made me really not care what happened to her. Also, I felt that by making every other woman in the story weak, unintelligent and/or petty, Card became just as chauvinistic toward them as he accuses the early Church leadership of being toward Dinah and anyone like her.
Another one of my beefs with this book is the way Card focuses so completely on Joseph Smith and the issue of polygamy. I think the idea of Dinah seeing the Prophet in a vision and coming to Nauvoo just to be his wife absurd in the extreme. I also thought it was offensive when she equated him with God - let me say this once and for all, Mormons don't and never have worshipped Joseph Smith. The issue of polygamy was HUGE in this book - in fact, the majority of the novel is about Dinah learning to accept and revere being a "sister wife." While I found some of his insights interesting, I found myself wishing Card would stop dwelling on polygamy - trying to excuse and explain it - and just get on with the story.
Finally, my biggest complaint is that this novel lacked purpose. In the Afterword, Card states that he wrote Saints for non-Mormons with the intent of finding "a story to tell, a way to interlace my characters with Mormon history, without ever requiring the readers to decide whether they believed in Joseph Smith's religion" (696). He was hoping to remain unbiased. In doing this, I think he tried to serve too many masters and the result is a chaotic, meandering tale that can't make up its mind about which direction to take. On one hand, it celebrates Joseph Smith as a loving, charismatic leader who is completely in tune with God; on the other, it paints him as a lecherous bully who doesn't have enough discernment to separate good men from evil. It also celebrates marriage, but only of the polygamous variety. I can think of only one example Card gives of a solid monogamous marriage. Card also writes of a pure and righteous people, but infuses his story with profanity and sexual scenes that would make any pure and righteous person blush. And he insinuates that Joseph Smith was a hypocrite. Yikes. In the Afterword, Card explains one thing that makes these issues a little clearer: he describes the narrator, O. Kirkham, as a "not officially (yet) ex-Mormon" (706). That explains the skepticism in the story, I suppose, but O. Kirkham's position on Mormonism was never made clear in the novel. The whole thing just confused me. I found myself wishing the narrator/author would just choose a side, since it was obviously impossible to be impartial on this subject.
Since that is true, maybe I'm not the best one to review this book. I tried to look at it objectively, but there were so many things in this book that I found erroneous and just downright offensive. I don't mind that Orson Scott Card wrote about plural marriage - it happened, I accept that - I just wish he had written a tighter story with a clearer objective. I also wish he had written as evocatively in the last 2/3 of the book as he did in the first 1/3. Mostly I wish someone out there (with more talent than Gerald Lund and Orson Scott Card) would write an honest, compelling book about the Mormon experience. It would make an incredible book...if only someone could finally get it right.