A new customer review of Mormonia: Stories, my first short story collection, appeared on Amazon.com:
The Mormon Church asserts that it is the fastest-growing religion in the world, and whether true or not, it’s clear that non-Mormon fascination with Mormonism is on the rise. Mitt Romney has piqued our curiosity while HBO’s Big Love has kept us glued to the set, and Broadway’s The Book of Mormon has left us scouring the web and standing in lines for impossible-to-get tickets.
Jeff Von Ward’s collection of short stories, Mormonia, is a welcome new entry for the Mormon-curious–and for anyone craving compelling human stories. The book, though rich with cultural esoterica, is less about Mormonism than it is about the inner lives, with their ordinary triumphs and defeats, of the characters that weave the seven stories together.
The collection spans several generations of a single family, and each story touches down in a different point in its history. The final story, a novella, seems to breathe life into a stony-faced sepia family portrait, as a hopeful child approaches the family’s patriarch, who still lives by Depression-era thrift, to request approval to purchase a pair of shoes. We sense that what the boy really craves is for the imposing man to approve of him, not his shoe choice, and his yearning is palpable. Soon the child is grown and coyly pursuing a cardigan-clad young woman on a college campus the 60s counterculture seems to have bypassed. The campus is insulated, but Von Ward makes its culture so real to us that it we don’t see the courtship’s unduly restrained progress as anything but natural. As we travel with the boy on his mission overseas, we long to protect him from the tragedy that awaits.
“Grable the Swan” zooms in on the teen years of the same boy, while “Grape Juice,” “Restricted Materials” and “Visitors Welcome” throw us, cringing with recognition, into the teen years of the next generation, throttling through religious questioning and sexual awakening in the latter days of the 20th century.
“Families Are Forever” and “A Little Vacation” offer a telling parallel between the children and parents of different eras, separated by decades but connected by the same, persistent familial fault lines.
Non-Mormons will encounter surprises and strangeness in the world of these people, but Von Ward deftly blends the odd and the ordinary, showing us a world made of “large strip malls and freeways, Maverick gas stations and churches every few blocks whose spires align like a unanimous sustaining show of hands.”
The glue that binds the stories is not the idiosyncratic culture these characters inhabit, but the empathy we feel for them. We greet each reappearance of a character within these pages as we would an old friend, and while the customs and traditions detailed in the stories are new to anyone outside the Mormon faith, we are swept up in them as if we’ve practiced them all our lives. Von Ward drops us into foreign territory but guides us every step of the way. When we depart these characters’ world, what remains with us is not their cultural oddities, but their aching humanity.