If you're not sure what a Mormon is, let alone a Mormon Mention, allow me to explain: My name is Susan and I'm a Mormon (you've seen the commercials, right?). As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon or LDS Church), I'm naturally concerned with how my religion is portrayed in the media. Because this blog is about books, every time I see a reference to Mormonism in a book written by someone who is not a member of my church, I highlight it here. Then, I offer my opinion—my insider's view—of what the author is saying. It's my chance to correct misconceptions, expound on principles of the Gospel, and even to laugh at my (sometimes) crazy Mormon culture.
In The Oregon Trail, journalist Rinker Buck recounts the trip he took with his brother in 2011 from St. Joseph's, Missouri, to Farewell Bend, Oregon. As he describes trekking in the footsteps of pioneers in a restored 19th Century covered wagon pulled by a stubborn team of mules, he discusses
the terrain, the history of the places he passes, and the similarities/differences between his trip and those of the trail's original travelers. Mormonism is mentioned often in his account because, as Buck notes:
"Reaching the Oregon Trail in Wyoming and not confronting the Mormon experience would be like reaching Paris and not studying the cathedrals. You cannot understand one without the other" (262).Addressing everything Buck writes about Mormons would take forever, so I just want to point out a couple passages. His account of visiting Martin's Cove, a historical site owned by the LDS Church, is hilarious. He makes some interesting points while telling a hysterical tale about his foul-mouthed brother trying to "put on his Mormon" for the visit. Buck has his criticisms about how the Church acquired and runs the site, but the brothers' experience there made me laugh 'til I cried.
While Buck's comments about Martin's Cove were not entirely positive, his experience on Rocky Ridge—the highest point of the Mormon Trail and one made sacred because of the extreme hardship endured there by pioneers, especially during the 1856 crossing of the beleaguered Willie Handcart Company—made a believer out of him. The fortuitous appearance of two "Mormon angels" just when the Buck brothers needed them in order to cross treacherous Rocky Ridge seemed to convince them that indeed, they trod on holy ground. Of the experience, Buck wrote, "... I loved ... everything Mormon, that day on Rocky Ridge. Indeed, standing with them on the high rocks, I was a Mormon. Today, on windy Rocky Ridge beneath a hard blue Wyoming sky, I was Mormon" (309). It's a very touching account, the most memorable part of The Oregon Trail for me.
I haven't ever visited Martin's Cove or Rocky Ridge, but I still have a great respect and love for the pioneers whose blood and tears flowed freely over both. These men and women—some my own kin—endured incredible hardships in the name of religious freedom. In obeying the God they believed in with their whole hearts and souls, they blazed trails for all of us to follow. Vital to the settling of not just Utah, but also much of the American west, the magnificence of their courage and sacrifice really can't be understated.
(Book image from Barnes & Noble; handcart painting by Brent Flory)