Sunday, May 02, 2010

Emily Wing Smith Turns Piercing Gaze On Her Own People In Stunning Debut Novel

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

How do you discuss a "problem novel" without bringing up the problem it addresses? That's the issue I'm having with reviewing Emily Wing Smith's debut novel, The Way He Lived. I want to express my opinion of the book, defend my faith, and let you know precisely how I feel about the topic the book addresses - all without sounding like the exact kind of judgmental, close-minded, bigot Smith describes in her story. Even more important, I don't want to get all spoiler-y. So, I'm going to give it my best shot ...

Actually, since The Way He Lived is about making assumptions and judgments, let me admit a few things up front:

- When I met Emily Wing Smith last weekend, I was thoroughly charmed. She's funny, upbeat and quirky in the best possible way. For some reason, I thought her book would be just like her. Um, no. Her debut is much darker and a whole lot more depressing than I imagined. I keep asking myself if I would have read the novel differently had I not met the author first. So, I just want to throw this question out there - Has meeting an author in person ever influenced the way you read his/her book? I'm very curious about this.

- Also, I'm a huge hypocrite. I bash LDS literature constantly for being too cheesy, too preachy and way, way too unrealistic. But, when someone - like say, Emily Wing Smith - writes a book for the mainstream press that shows Mormons in a harsh, not-all-that-flattering light, I get a little uncomfortable. I guess I prefer Angela Morrison's brand of "Mormon book" - stories that let LDS teens grapple with their testimonies, their hormones and their families, without becoming too bitter or critical. All this is my way of issuing a warning: The Way He Lived is no feel-good LDS novel. If you are sensitive to candid discussions of hot-button issues and how they affect LDS teens, I suggest giving this one a wide berth.

- I should probably clarify what I mean by LDS literature. First of all, LDS = The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, popularly known as The Mormons. I consider books written by members of the church about any aspect of Mormonism to be LDS literature. However, there's a huge difference between LDS literature published by the church and LDS literature produced by mainstream presses. In order to be published by church-owned presses (namely Deseret Book and Covenant Communications), a book cannot contain any profanity, sexual content, graphic violence or criticism of the church. Generally, the stories need to be clean and uplifting. Mainstream presses, on the other hand, allow - and sometimes actively encourage - profanity, gratuitous sex, graphic violence and censorious looks into conservative societies. Whether you care about any of this, I don't know, but ...

FYI: Emily Wing Smith is LDS. Her book is about Mormon culture. The Way He Lived was published by Flux, which is not owned by the church.

Ah ha! You're good and curious now, aren't you? Okay, what say we actually talk about the book? Here we go for real:

The Way He Lived revolves around 16-year-old Joel Espen, a Mormon boy who dies when a Boy Scout trip to the Grand Canyon goes horribly wrong. No one is surprised to learn that Joel sacrificed himself to save his friends - that's just the kind of person he was. A hero. An angel. Or was he? As six teens, including Joel's sisters, his best buddy, and his would-be girlfriend, tell their stories, six very different pictures of Joel emerge. Was he the perfect Mormon boy his family thought him to be? Or a typical hormonal boy, horrified by his own passion? Or was he a confused, tortured soul, trapped by the strict expectations of his religion?

Since we know the details of Joel's death from the beginning of the book, there's no real mystery or suspense to the story. In fact, there's very little plot at all. That might have gotten a little annoying if the voices of Smith's characters weren't so distinct and compelling. Each of the half dozen narrators offers a fresh perspective - from the brainy debater who longs to embrace her artistic side, to the bad boy whose grief makes him lash out, to the older sister who can't stand the thought of her saintly brother being anything other than what she imagined him to be, to the lonely girl who finally manages to attract Joel's attention, just to have her hopes dashed to pieces. Filtered only by each person's assumptions, the vignettes give six different glimpses into how a person grieves, how people see one another, and what it means to be kids living in a society governed by strict, often stifling rules of conduct.

What I like about this book is the authenticity of the kids' voices. They're real. They're sympathetic. They're fascinating. I read The Way He Lived in one sitting because I wanted to see how they dealt with Joel's death and how they changed - either for the good or the bad - because of it. I cared about all of the characters even if I didn't agree with them. The book also made me think a lot - about my own prejudices, my own assumptions, and my own beliefs. I'm not saying that reading this novel changed how I feel about the issue in question, but it made me feel a little more empathetic toward those who may be struggling with it.

As if I didn't already admire Emily's boldness (I heard she recently snuck onto a movie set pretending to be an extra ...), I now bow to her bravery. I can think of very few LDS authors ballsy enough to take on "heavy" topics like this.

Doing so, of course, means that Emily gets to deal with readers who might not be too keen on her sharp look at Mormon society. I guess that includes me. I'm all for being more loving/accepting/open-minded, but I can't help feeling that The Way He Lived casts Mormondom in a decidedly unflattering light, paints LDS people as small-minded sheep, and makes the church's stringent principles seem hopelessly outdated. Whether that was Emily's intention or not - and, yes, I do know it's just a story - that's what I took away from it. I wanted at least a little bit of brightness, a teensy bit of hope, but I just didn't feel any.

All in all, I'm glad I read the book. Emily Wing Smith writes with such skill and such empathy that it's hard not to be drawn into her writing. She creates characters whose voices ring absolutely true. She's brave, talented, and really, so sweet. I look forward to reading whatever she writes next - I just hope she turns her piercing gaze toward something other than her own people.

(Readalikes: I can't think of any. Can you?)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language and sexual innuendo/content

To the FTC, with love: I bought The Way He Lived from Amazon, using moneys I earned from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

9 comments:

  1. Great post! I know exactly what you mean about the difficulties faced in trying to find a decently written "inspirational" (in my case Christian) novel, as well as the difficulty in finding books that don't make conservatives look like narrow minded idiots.

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  2. That was a fantastic review and I appreciate your honesty. I think I'll probably skip this one. I have problems with Elna Baker for the same reasons.

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  3. That's the great challenge with LDS lit for me: I want to recognize my faith when I read LDS books. I don't feel the same way about books with other religions, or at least not to the same degree. When I read about my own religion, I want it to resonate with me.

    What's your favorite LDS book? Have you read No Going Back? I wanted the writing to be tighter, but I thought the portrayal of LDS people and doctrine was well done.

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  4. I'm not a huge fan of the so called LDS literature either. I have read a bunch though (The Work and the Glory... anyone?), but not for a long long time.

    I can't remember Emily's book having mentioned Mormons... weird. Must have tuned that right out!

    And yes, after meeting an author, I pretty much automatically like their books. I want SO BAD to promote them and support them.

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  5. Julie - I know, right? I have faith that there are good, clean, well-written books out there - I just have to find them :)

    Tricia - Thanks! I do want to stress that Emily is a great writer - her book just deals with a sensitive subject. I've never heard of Elna Baker ...

    Emily - I agree. At the moment, I think my favorite LDS book is TAKEN BY STORM by Angela Morrison. It's a book about a "real" Mormon girl dealing with real problems, but it's not sentimental or cheesy. I haven't read NO GOING BACK, but I need to.

    Suey - I've only read the first volume of THE WORK AND THE GLORY. I like the idea of the series, but the writing left a lot to be desred.

    Emily's book is all about Mormons. LOL.

    I totally agree on the authors - meeting them in person makes it tough to be critical of their books.

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  6. Eric Samuelson, a great playwrighting teacher at BYU, has a mantra he applies to many of his LDS-centered plays: "Affirm the faith, attack the culture."

    The fact is that, like everyone else in the world, Mormons can be a bit narrow-minded about things that don't fit their ideal of perfection. We're certainly not the only group who does this, but when we amass in concentrated numbers, our ideals--both those taught by the church and our extentions thereof--can quickly translate into cultural mandates. Once that happens, anyone who dares to depart from the norm can feel isolated, shunned, and possibly persecuted.

    I loved this book for all the reasons you list and also because of the way it reveals the foibles of my own faith and culture. If frank discussion of our imperfections drives others away from the church, it might not be the best missionary tool, but if actually being right is more important than being perceived as being right, we can always use a book that shows us where we are wrong. (Especially when that makes us uncomfortable.) :)

    Besides, I think friends outside our faith will relate more to their LDS neighbors if they can see that we're not as perfect as we like to appear. :) If we're still breathing, we're still falling short.

    Of course, the first part of Mr. Samuelson's mantra should also apply, and I do think that this book does a lot to affirm the LDS faith. The teens are imperfect and they have typically confused views of the world and how to cope with the tragedy, but I can't remember a single part of the book where they question their bedrock of faith. They may not always follow it, but the main message of the book is one of acceptance, of forgiveness, of moving on after tragedy, and of the importance of family.

    Great review, Susan.

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  7. I've been meaning to pick this one up for a while now. I still intend to, though I know just what you are saying about being uncomfortable. I'm impressed with Smith for being able to write it and be so compelling.

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  8. The way you describe the author's writing, particularly her empathy for her characters, really appeals to me.

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  9. Robing - You already know all my feelings on this book and the subject in question :)

    I agree that anyone (individual or community/people) who can't take an honest look at their own imperfections can never learn from them or grow. All of us can be narrow-minded at times - that's very true. However, I think there's a world of difference between tolerance and acceptance.

    Melissa - Her bravery is one of the things I respect most about Emily. Also her sweetness, her sense of humor, her warmth, her mad writing skills ...

    Stephanie - That's exactly what makes her writing so authentic and appealing.

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