Category Archives: Mormonia

The Disneyfication of Everything

Your stay in Historic Nauvoo begins with a horse cart ride. Everything in Nauvoo is scripted. Every restored or rebuilt home run by the Mormons comes complete with a moral message. There’s an elder in the front, sitting next to the teamster, chiming in from time to time with humorous anecdotes. A sister—his wife?—sits in the back of the carriage wearing a wireless head mic. She solemnly sticks to the script. They pass through the sites owned by the Community of Christ: the Smith family gravesites, the old store, and the Smith family home. It costs three dollars, they say, to tour these places, but well worth it.

If you continue to wear your Community of Christ admission sticker like a badge of shame, expect snide remarks from the Mormon missionaries the rest of the day: “Oh, that’s the three dollar sticker! Haha!” with Calvinistic implication they’re the true church by virtue of wealth and numbers. As if to reinforce this disparity, the Community of Christ tour ends with a visit to the Red Brick Store where visitors are encourage to check the books to see if their ancestors have any outstanding debits. If your last name appears in the book, the guide will rib you about how you now have a chance to make good on your family’s debt. Fortunately, they haven’t yet heard of compound interest.

Back on the LDS side of things, you’re encouraged to get a free cookie at the bakery, a free “prairie diamond” at the blacksmith shop, then learn about rifling and a gun empire that began in Nauvoo. Sorry, no free weaponry. At the post office, they’ll demonstrate how letters were mailed using a single piece of letter as both stationary and envelope. And if that’s not enough, they’ll also explain how the town’s inhabitants wrote cross-wise from top to bottom and left to right in a remarkable display of pioneer thrift. All interesting tidbits. Then comes the spiritual lesson. Oops, time to duck out. Ah, this is why their side of things is free. You have to endure a little proselytizing. Suddenly three bucks doesn’t seem like such an extravagant expenditure. But they’re in the business of saving souls. “Did you know when you place a piece of paper on top, you can decipher the letters on this page line by line? This here paper is like the Holy Ghost.” A distinct and disembodied spirit, as conceived by the Mormons, who helps guide people who have received his blessing. “Do you have the Holy Ghost in your life?”

Fortunately there were numerous occasions where the volunteer army of aging sisters and elders unintentionally let the seams—and their humanity—show. There was the really nice lady working at the Brigham Young home. She seemed constitutionally unable to stick to the script. We had a lengthy conversation about polygamy and she said she had been studying Brigham Young’s history and was just fascinated by all she had learned since coming to Nauvoo.

At the Lyon’s drug store, the ladies handed me their cue cards, after a long disagreement about whether they were allowed to let people into Patty Sessions’ cabin any longer. The laminated deck of index cards, comprised mostly of footnotes, included, I suppose, for the purpose of placating pestering folks like me. The introduction was a single sentence about the Word of Wisdom and the cue cards directed the sisters to make it the focus of their tour. But in the footnotes there was something more interesting: did you know Sylvia Sessions was the only “spiritual wife” of Joseph Smith to ever claim to have had one of his children? The footnotes go on, in Hugh Nibley style, to say this claim was later disproved by DNA evidence. By whom and when? The footnotes didn’t say.

A new customer review of Mormonia: Stories

A new customer review of Mormonia: Stories, my first short story collection, appeared on


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.

-Louis K