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The Book of Mormon

Literary works that look beyond stereotypes of the Latter Day Saints

By Katharine Whittemore
Globe Correspondent / March 20, 2011

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We modern-day sorts love to rib Latter-day Saints. There’s such rich material: the Osmonds, the bans on drinking, premarital sex, and caffeine(!), the back story (Jesus coming to America and converting the Indians, Joseph Smith digging up the golden plates), how teenaged missionaries are called “elders.’’ Now Mormons are in for further teasing with “The Book of Mormon’’ (tagline: “God’s Favorite Musical’’) opening on Broadway. Heard all the buzz? The show, about two naive missionaries in poorest Uganda, is a raunchy over-the-top satire (in one much-touted number, everyone gives the middle finger to heaven). The tone is no surprise when you learn two of its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are the crass geniuses behind TV’s “South Park.’’

What is a surprise is the show’s great affection and ultimate respect for Mormons. “I like every Mormon I’ve ever met,’’ Parker says, adding that the show is “an atheist’s love letter to religion.’’ “The Book of Mormon’’ plays to stereotypes, sure, but it also believes that good faith makes for a good life.

So let’s acknowledge our own stereotypes, and then dig deeper. I’ll bet your wheelhouse includes feisty sister-wives and creep fest prophets from “Big Love.’’ Maybe that buff Joe Pitt in his sacred undergarments in “Angels in America’’? Or, to take the Bostonian view of the world: Mitt Romney or Danny Ainge? Some local stats: 6,000 Mormons live in the Boston area. Now add the 200 missionaries who hit our city annually out of 60,000 worldwide. Such faith and fortitude has made Mormonism the world’s fastest-growing religion.

But that big size has been met with little understanding. Here’s the question, then: Are there any great, nuanced books about what it’s really like to be a Mormon? Is the Great Salt Lake briny?

Good gritty Mormon fiction doesn’t grow on juniper trees. That’s because Utah’s Deseret Book Co. has a near-monopoly on LDS title distribution. If it thinks a book is at all unseemly, it’s quashed.

A few smaller presses, like Signature and Zarahemla, gamely turn out alternative Mormon fiction. Meanwhile, some books have broken out nationally: Angela Hallstrom’s “Bound on Earth’’ (Bentley, 2008), for instance, and Brady Udall’s “The Lonely Polygamist’’ (W.W. Norton, 2010). Oh, and sink your teeth into this: “Twilight’s’’ Stephenie Meyers is a Mormon.

I think the best of all Mormon novels is “The Backslider’’ (Signature, 1986), a dark 1950s story of a lying, lusting southern Utah ranch hand named Frank Windham. Frank calls God “that Big Son of a Bitch in the Sky.’’ He’s rotten to his woman. He fails and fails at the Word of Wisdom (Mormon for doing right). His brother goes bats. The book is all about the tension between Mormon aspiration and hardpan reality, and Peterson can really write. When a panicked Frank learns his girl is pregnant, for instance, “inside he spun like a radiator fan.’’

Elna Baker’s memoir, “The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance’’ (Dutton Adult, 2009), is an original, witty piece of celibate chick lit. Baker is a fish-out-of-water Mormon NYU grad who loses 80 pounds, tries acting and stand-up comedy and, as you learn in the acknowledgments, ends up chummy with Elizabeth Swados and Ira Glass.

She has a genuine but funny take on faith. She dates a bunch, and tries to stay “honest-ish, true-ish, chaste-ish.’’ And each year, she goes to the title dance, hoping to land a nice Mormon mate, even though she must withstand performances of the Mormon Rap: “I’m a fine young man, I’m living clean/Don’t touch Soda Pop if it has caffeine/You might say I’m a good little Sunbeam.’’

There are no good little Sunbeams in “Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer (Doubleday, 2003), that’s for sure. This is one disturbing crime story, backed with great salt flats of expert Mormon history. Less than 1 percent practice polygamy, but that’s where the sick drama lies, isn’t it? Krakauer unflinchingly spotlights the principle’s pathology: rampant pedophilia, gaming the welfare system, since technically they’re single mothers), and violent zealotry.

The story hinges on the 1984 murder of a young mother and her infant daughter. The perps are two of her brothers-in-law, who claim God called them to the deed. Krakauer deftly puts the crime in context by covering the pre-Civil War pogroms against Mormons in the Midwest, the faith’s focus on directly hearing God’s voice, and the legacy of charismatic founder Joseph Smith. Like the “South Park’’ guys, Krakauer is mesmerized by the LDS and their (pick one) inspiring, unsettling, mystifying religion. That’s the thing, right? The more you learn about Mormons, the more they’re a revelation.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net.

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BY KATHARINE WHITTEMORE