Linda Paulson Adams
Cornerstone , June 2000. Trade paperback:
Suggested retail price: $14.95 (US)
A Rambling Intro
The lore of the Apocalypse has become popular recently in both filmand literature, most notably in the evangelical Christian LeftBehind series. A staple of science fiction over the last fortyyears, this new crop of apocalyptic stories revolves around not just atechnological devastation, but a religious one -- *the* religiousone -- that ushers in the Millennium.
Mormondom has its own apocalyptic movement that, while similar to thegeneralized Christian vision in most of the broad strokes, isdecidedly different in many of the details. Both portray society ascorrupt, with religious freedoms substantially curtailed by force oflaw. Both assume a general decline of both social and economicopportunity with increase in war as its inevitable result, oftenresulting in a cataclysmic doomsday scenario. Both describe acharismatic anti-Christ who leads the peoples' hearts astray justbefore taking their freedoms away and establishing Satan's kingdom onthe earth. Both assume a small group of faithful who will sufferultimate privation but survive with their religious hope intact. Bothend with the heavens opened and Christ revealing himself in glory.
But the Mormon apocalyptic vision adds a relatively unique element --a gathering of the faithful and the building of the literalfoundations of the New Jerusalem, the city of God that will berestored to the earth at the Millennium. The Saints do not standhelplessly by as the world goes slowly down to hell, they activelycombat that decline and establish a community of extreme righteousnessin the midst of the chaos.
Of course this Mormon utopia is built in Jackson County, Missouri infulfillment of modern prophecy that the New Jerusalem will be builtthere. Add the uniquely Mormon belief that the Garden of Eden wasoriginally founded in Jackson County, and the circle is completed --the faithful return to the paradise from which Man was first cast out,returning to live in the literal presence of their God after theirdifficult odyssey.
While a few Mormons have dealt with a science fiction style apocalypse(Orson Scott Card's Folk of the Fringe comes to mind), most ofthe Mormon apocalyptic novels have been end-times scenarios,speculations on the events that will presage the Second Coming. Mostfocus on political and social upheavals with characters used only asthe links between scenes, usually offering a smug back-pat to theMormons who know so much more than the rest of the world.
In other words, they spend so much time rehashing the samepaint-by-numbers, sef-congratulatory, event-driven, obvious, andpolitically right-wing doomsday scenarios that they forget to tellstories about real characters dealing with very difficult anduncertain times. By and large they're bad books. In my opinion.
The Review Begins: Synopsis
Which is why I approached Linda Adams' book Prodigal Journeywith a great deal of trepidation. I like Linda. I've read a few of hershort stories and have quite enjoyed them. I've heard some of herthoughts on AML-List and have been intrigued. I've generally found herto be thoughtful and intelligent and I've come to respect her as botha person and a writer.
So the fear that she had written just another wacky, right-wingpolitico-religious diatribe against the New World Order kept me fromreading her book for a very long time. That and its substantial heft-- 517 pages in volume one alone. I didn't want to lose my respect foran otherwise really nice person.
It turns out my fears were completely unfounded. I really liked thisbook, despite my strong inclination not to.
Prodigal Journey is a well-written, thoughfully presented,character-oriented exploration of how the hearts of men have turnedcold in a future America. It is generally free of the easy moralizingand simplistic dismissals that characterize so many books in theapocalptic category, and takes a clean look at Mormon end-times lorethrough the viewpoint of a good-hearted young woman who comes fromoutside the Mormon community.
Alyssa Stark is a child of a radically altered future America that hasbeen devastated by both natural and man-made disasters that leftSouthern California a radioactive wasteland and utterly destroyed theeastern seaboard, causing the government to establish itself in themidwest under the direction of a powerful and charismatic presidentwho uses the peoples' fear of further devastation to rewrite theConstitution.
The new America created out of peoples' fears has made religion anugly word and recast both policies and practices with few of the moralconstraints that religion formerly imposed. Most drugs are legalized(and heavily taxed), public sexual experimentation is considered abasic human right, and young people are legally emancipated at ageseventeen. Life seems generally good, though continuing mistrust ofthose with strong religious beliefs has caused many to renouncereligion in favor of a sort of secular humanism.
Alyssa Stark is part of the first generation to grow up in this newAmerica that celebrates individual expression over communal good. Sheis a good-hearted child of a viciously controlling mother and anabsentee father. She is the ultimate loner, intelligent and likablebut cut off from loving relationships -- with a fiercely independentmindset as its result.
The novel follows Alyssa as she escapes her loveless home to go intothe wide world, discovering that what she wants and what the world hasto offer are largely different. As she deals with a series ofdifficult challenges she finds her heart changed, her expectationsaltered. As her situation worsens she feels completely cut off fromany source of support until she feels utterly alone and abandoned. Asshe literally teeters on the brink of death she finds that her lifehas prepared her for powerful work, though she has no idea what thatwork might be.
That her path should lead Alyssa to a suppressed Mormon community anda discovery that many of her friends are Mormons should be no surprise-- this book is specifically intended for Mormon readers and isfounded around speculation on how the uniquely Mormon Zion might cometo be. Though this first volume focuses on the world in generalthrough the viewpoint of a non-Mormon character, it also sets thestage (and begins the process) for a final gathering to JacksonCounty. It appears that the next volume in the series will bringAlyssa more directly into the center of this Mormon community -- and,presumably, more directly speculate on what that community might looklike.
What I Liked
As I said before, this is a very well-written book. The author's styleis smooth and readable and never interfered with my enjoyment of thestory. Adams' prose ranges from unadorned and direct to vividlydetailed and beautiful depending on the situation. The result was thatthe story never had to fight the author's excesses or deficiencies.
This book is also deceptively engaging. Adams engages the reader bycreating a thoroughly likable character then putting her throughtrials, with the result that I found it hard to put the bookdown. Though there are few "Wow!" moments, I found myself quitedisappointed when midnight rolled around and I had to put the bookdown so I could go to bed. Despite its heft, I read the book in aboutthree days, staying up quite late to finish it.
Adams' use of a non-Mormon protagonist was a perfect choice, and gaveher the ability to create a richly detailed socially decadent worldwith little of the judgment and moralizing that one would expect froma character with any kind of strongly religious background, andespecially with a Mormon one. This kept the focus on the core issuesof morality, social choice, and political expedience rather than onexplicating a Mormon culture to those who are already familiar withit.
That clean focus gave this a fresh, uncluttered feel. Though Adamswould eventually draw a very familiar picture of a standard Mormonapocalyptic political sitution, she did so honestly and with anattention to details and reasons that made the storm-trooper/despoticoverlord scenario far less interesting than its effects on Alyssa. Byentering the Mormon community from outside, Alyssa is able to observeand comment in ways that an insider voice could not.
That I kept interest in this novel despite its portrayal of asocial/political vision that actively tires me is a testament to theoverall skill and quality of Adams writing and storytelling. If you'reinclined to accept that vision of the future then there is little inthis novel to distract from its thoughtful, interesting, well-earnedspeculations.
What Jarred Me
Which is not to say that this is a perfect novel. I was jarred fairlystrongly, and found myself cringing at a number of the author'schoices.
This volume is divided into three sections (books). Where the firstand third books are essentially a mainstream story set forty years inthe future, the second book opens up with a huge amount of bothscientific and political speculation that really jarred me, and thatfeatured some of the least believable speculations in the novel -- forme at least. I won't go into the details because I don't want to giveaway the plot, but I do want to warn you that this is a sciencefiction book -- at least through the middle third. There isspeculation on social science, political science, and medicaltechnology, and once it starts it flows fast and heavy.
Just be aware. The science fictional content kind of blindsided me.
I commented already on the heft of this novel, and though this is anengaging read that kept me turning pages, it also could have beenimproved with a ruthless reduction edit that cut somewhere over ahundred pages from the final text. The author has a tendency toreiterate points several times when once would have been enough. It'sthe normal first-draft hesitancy that a good editor should have workedwith the author to excise. Not a big problem, but it made an alreadysubstantial novel longer than it needed to be.
Perhaps my only big disappointment with the novel was that it didn'tfeature a strong internal story arc. Alyssa didn't have a strongoverarching goal that she was working toward; basically, her goal isto survive until the next day. She starts out trying to survive homelife, then college life, then life in the slums, but she isn't reallytrying to accomplish anything substantial. I would very much haveliked to see a unifying goal, a quest of sorts, to give more contextand tension to how well she addresses the struggles that befall her.
Remembering that this is the first of a three volume set, I suspectthe big story arc will be introduced in volume 2 -- the character hasnow been set fully in context with a problem, and the next installmentwill help define the limits of that problem and the consequences offailure. Unfortunately, her placement at the heart of a series of epicevents came so late in this first volume that it didn't serve as thestrong unifying thread that I wanted earlier on.
Not a critical flaw, but an element that left me just a little flat atthe end. I liked Alyssa enough that I am still anxiously awaiting thenext book in the series.
Scott's Mormo-Political Rage
I ranted about what I see as a limited Mormon social/politicalcreative vision in my review of Gerald Lund's The FreedomFactor so I won't do it again here. But this novel raised many ofthe same frustrations for me. I would really like to see a more variedspeculation on social and political conditions.
It can be argued, for example, that the Mormon tendency to rush toJackson County and build a New Jerusalem isn't really supported inscripture. Both the Bible and the Doctrine and Covenants talk aboutthat city coming down from heaven at the Millennium rather than beingbuilt before the Second Coming. And while I admit that I haven'tresearched modern revelation, the idea of the gathering to JacksonCounty seems more folklore than doctrine -- yet that gathering in thatplace is a consistent element of Mormon apocalyptics.
(If I got that wrong, I apologize. It may well be that we haveexplicit revelation saying that the Saints *will* gather to JacksonCounty prior to the Second Coming, but the majority of what appears inthe D&C is at best vague on that notion and seemed oriented toward thespecific community of Saints in the late 1830s. In either case myfrustration is not with interpretation of scripture but rather withwhat I perceive as a narrow creative vision relative to how we tellstories about that speculation, and which details we choose toemphasize.
I know -- I'm building a list of angry people who will come back on mewith a giant "So what?" when I eventually write my own novel ofspeculative apocalyptics, but I defend myself on the basis thatwhether I succeed at meeting my own goal or not, I'd still like to seea more varied set of stories that rely less on a commonly accepted setof events.)
Part of this, I think, is the vast sense of incompletion thatdominates the Mormon mindset as regards Missouri and Illinois. In bothplaces we had nearly built our Mormon utopias, only to have themsnatched from us by angry mobs and corrupt politicians. In both placeswe had established communities that were both socially progressive andpolitically powerful, yet both communities failed -- largely due tocircumstances beyond our control.
Those stories were never completed, they just stopped. And I thinkthat sense of a job left undone is part of what drives our desire tocomplete in fiction what we were unable to do in history. I hope therecent dedication of the temple in Nauvoo will ease that sense ofincompletion somewhat. I know it does for me. After visiting Nauvoo in2000 I was left with a sense of emptiness at our last great socialfailure that was largely assuaged when the new temple was dedicated.
I'm not saying Mormons should move on, but I would like to see a morevaried basis (or at least geography) for our utopias. Of course I alsocan't help but note that the Jackson County obsession specificallychallenges the Salt Lake Valley obsession, and the prankster in mecan't help but giggle a bit at anything that makes that sociallyoverbearing Zion in the tops of Utah's mountains into a temporary stopon the way to the real Zion somewhere else -- maybe in South Dakota ornear Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
In terms of Mormon apocalyptic lore, Linda Adams goes over a lot offamiliar ground in Prodigal Journey. But she does so with morestyle, thoughtfulness, creativity, and freshness of vision than anyother author I'm aware of in the category. Her emphasis on characterand spiritual discovery makes her story unique and very much worthreading. It gets past most of the cultural noise to the core issues ofindividual hope and belief that should dominate our own thoughts. Iheartily recommend it not only as the best in its class, but a worthybook in any class.
Good stuff. I very much look forward to the next installment, and soshould you. Linda Adams is a Mormon author to pay attention to.
© 2002 Scott Parkin < email@example.com >