On the Road to Heaven is two autobiographical tales in one book: the story of Newell’s conversion, from hippie to Saint, or, as he puts it, from Zero to Zion; and the story of his mission to Colombia. He weaves his love for Annie, a teenage LDS girl who questions her faith and then returns to it, through both tales. I found the conversion narrative moving, compelling, believable. It’s very tough to write the divine without sounding cheesy or preachy, but Newell manages to pull it off well. The bits of grit (discussion of his drug-influenced search for God; some crude language; half-naked Colombian girls hot for American missionaries) somehow make his conversion and successful missionary labor all the more powerful. I particularly loved this poignant prayer, given at his first discussion after the missionaries taught him to pray:

…I could almost hear a real voice and I kneeled down and I said, ‘Oh, god, if you’re real, let me know, I want to know, and I want to change and I want to know if what these boys are telling me is true, they asked me to pray, and I’m really sorry for everything I’ve ever done, and I didn’t know some of it was wrong, I just didn’t know, I really didn’t, but some I did and I’m really sorry and I’ve been looking for this forever and and I wanna come back, amen.

That’s not too far off from Alma 22:17-18:

17 And it came to pass that when Aaron had said these words, the king did bow down before the Lord, upon his knees; yea, even he did prostrate himself upon the earth, and cried mightily, saying:
18 O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day.

What makes this narrative work for me is its autobiographical form. I don’t know if that’s fair to LDS fiction writers; in fact, I’m certain that it’s completely unfair, but I think if this book were fiction I would not have enjoyed it nearly as much. This is why: there would always be an Author for me in the background. I’d wonder about that scary acid trip scene–was it really necessary? Or the description of voluptuous girls in Colombia–did we really need to know that? Why did the Author put it in? Do I wonder about scenes like that when I read non-LDS fiction? Do I sit second-guessing their authors? Yes, but usually about different things; I don’t care whether they represent their own faith well (though if they write about Mormons, I do), I just want a good story. With LDS writers, though, I’d like to agree with the way they depict Mormonism. With fiction, I can always dispute their portrayal. But I can’t second-guess autobiographical fiction; I can’t deny the truth and power of the events Newell relates, or say he shouldn’t have told it that way, since it’s his story. I’m grateful for that; it allows me to just relax as a reader, and believe, and enjoy.

Newell’s genre choice thus neatly circumvents the moral police in my brain. I suspect that I’m a lot more conservative that way than many of you out there. But I also suspect that there are many readers just like me, who might not like this book if it were straight fiction, might balk at the grit and feel conned by the conversion, but who are able to enjoy it and believe because they know that it is not just fiction, but True. That’s what Mormons look for, instinctively: we want things that feel True, literature that is True. Newell’s On The Road to Heaven hits the sweet spot of Mormon literature, that place somewhere between popular and literary LDS fiction, resonating in ways both human and divine.

Coke Newell
On the Road to Heaven
Zarahemla Books, 2007
Softcover, 333 pages

On the Road to Heaven links:

Zarahemla Books

Coke Newell’s Official Website

AML Award Citation

Whitney Award Citation

Kent Larsen on the implications of a novel winning both the Whitney Award and the AML Novel of the Year award, at A Motley Vision

Julie Smith takes on the idea of the autobiographical novel at Times and Seasons.

On the Road to HeavenThis review>from a Catholic perspective

Coke Newell’s own explanation of his writings at A Motley Vision.

Richard Cracroft in BYU Today

Feel free to add other links in the comments if you have some favorites that I missed; I’ll go back and edit them in.


  1. Claudia

    April 23, 2008

    “With fiction, I can always dispute their portrayal. But I can’t second-guess autobiographical fiction; I can’t deny the truth and power of the events. . .”

    There has been a spate of autobiographical writing of late that has been admitted by their authors to be fraudulent. I suspect for the reason stated above these authors chose to write about the topics they did. The fact that the prayer story sounds so much like Alma 22: 17-18 would cause me to question. Memories are constructions and the more we think about them the more creative they become. Just because I write about what I might remember doesn’t mean I get the facts right. Fiction doesn’t depend on facts, not even historical fiction, it depends on honesty. That is something completely different.

  2. William Morris

    April 23, 2008

    Not that it really clears anything up, but Coke Newell wrote a brief piece about On the Road to Heaven which I published on A Motley Vision.

  3. Angela

    April 23, 2008

    Great review, Emily. I especially like how you tackle the issue of the “autobiographical novel” and how it affects the way we read as Mormons.

    My little theory is that Mormons can handle doubt and sin and unanswered questions and trauma quite well if the story is true. When the story is true, then the writer LIVED the story–there aren’t any questions as to the ulterior motives of the writer because the events actually happened. But when a writer CHOOSES to have uncomfortable or unresolved things occur–from getting hit on by the “voluptuous girls” you mentioned to having a negative experience in a marriage or at church–then the reader wonders why the author, who has all the control in the world, would “choose” such a thing. Even though the reader understands that such circumstances reflect what actually goes on in the world, there can be a lot of dissatisfaction aimed at a writer who chooses to include such things in his or her work.

    I’m not necessarily saying this tendency is good or bad. It’s just an observation I’ve made as a fiction writer.

    Now, there’s the other phenomenon where readers assume that even though you SAY what you’ve written is fiction, it probably all really happened. Unless you’re writing about vampires–that’s probably made up. But no vampires? Probably true. As a matter of fact, at a neighborhood get-together last week, a friend of ours accidentally called my husband “Kyle,” the name of one of the male characters in my book he’d just read. It was a completely innocent slip and he was really embarrassed . . . but it just goes to show that the line between fiction and truth is a slippery one. (And no, my husband is not Kyle. Well, maybe he is a little, just without the bipolar disorder. So he kinda is, kinda isn’t. See? Slippery.)

  4. green mormon architect

    April 23, 2008

    Interestingly I just finished this book today, the whole time thinking it was a fiction novel since I found it under Fiction at the library (I must have missed the cover page). Learning now that it is autobiographical doesn’t really change anything for me, though. I think it works as fiction just as successfully; one that is not censored for a certain audience, but where the character is open, honest, and not ashamed of his past experiences and thoughts. On the whole, the book has a refreshing honesty, for LDS literature especially, that filled my soul with joy and hope. Removing the “moral police” from the text helped make it more real, especially since it gave the LDS reader the option to cast a stone. So I really connected with how ‘real’ the experiences in there felt, and I think that this conversion story transcends the boundary between fiction and non-fiction as all good storytelling does. For me it was a beautiful conversion story regardless.

  5. Coke Newell

    April 23, 2008

    I am sometimes grateful… sometimes.. when Chris Bigelow (the publisher of On the Road to Heaven) alerts me about a new blog comment or media review of the book. I suppose I’m too old, and certainly too anachronistic, to even think of seeking out such things on my own. What’s the point, after all? The book is written, published and I’m on to the next one. (Which prompts the answer to a question raised elsewhere: no, this is not my first published book; I’ve been selling books, articles, scripts, short fiction, greeting card verse, advertising and PR copy, yada yada since 1987. See, I really am an old guy.)

    Emily’s post (You like that? “Emily’s Post.” Get it? Get it?) that leads this string was a nice one to read, and I thank her for her kind comments.

    That said, and having popped on over, reluctantly, to a couple of the other blog places (what ARE they called?) to read about On the Road to Heaven… what I MUST have been thinking, what I SURELY meant to say, whether I should have said it at all… I would simply refer interested readers to the same place William Morris refers them above: to my explicative post on A Motley Vision. Or, should it actually work, to my new website, although I’m building it on my own and I have no idea if it functions: http://everonwest.webs.com/

    That way you’ll get it right from the horses’s mouth, dare I claim such metaphorical merit.

    And as to Emily’s inquiry (rhetorical, I know) about whether I needed to so specifically describe “the voluptuous girls in Colombia,” the answer is yes. A guy would never pose that question.

  6. Emily M.

    April 23, 2008

    Claudia, good point. I thought about the Oprah incident when I wrote this; the line between fact and fiction can be nebulous. I like what you say–“fiction doesn’t depend on facts, it depends on honesty.” Very true. I don’t know that I’d take the Book of Mormon parallels here as evidence of some kind of fib or exaggeration, though. I think they work like any good literary allusion, adding another layer of meaning to the story.

    William Morris–thanks for the link; I’ve included it above as well.

    Angela–that’s my theory explained better. And this is my question: how do you get around it? Should you? You see it in official Church magazines–the Friend no longer accepts fiction, and it hasn’t for years. All the stories it publishes have to be based on true stories. Segullah, the Journal, is an answer to that dilemma, because it’s all memoir/essay/poetry, based again in real experiences. But there must be a place for fiction as well. I think Bound on Earth is a great book, but I can see some people not liking it because you as an author made Beth have a difficult marriage, or because Tina’s second marriage was not in the temple.

    green mormon architect–thanks for sharing your response–it’s interesting to me that you read it as straight fiction and found it just as compelling. Thanks for adding your perspective.

    Coke Newell–Thanks for your response and the link to your website–I will add it to the main post. And thanks for your compelling writing; I look forward to reading your work in the future.

  7. Angie

    April 25, 2008

    Sounds like a book I would enjoy. Thanks, Emily.

    I admit that I don’t like most LDS fiction with “questionable” elements that I’ve read. But for me the reason is that is usually doesn’t feel real. It feels like the author is aware he is writing something that his audience will react to, and is courting that reaction. Intentionally being too sexy or too mystical or too whatever for the typical DB crowd rather than telling a story that happens to have some of those elements. And that bugs me. It bugs me even more than preachy fiction that intentionally avoids all such aspects of human experience. I wish more LDS writers would just write what they know in an honest way. It seems that fiction writers who are not writing for an LDS audience are much less self conscious.

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