Title: The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith
Author: Joanna Brooks
While Mitt Romney is undoubtedly the most high-profile Mormon in America right now, many might argue that Joanna Brooks is the most high-profile Mormon woman in America today. In addition to her job as chair of the English Department at San Diego State University, she writes for Religion Dispatches and Washington Post, hosts the Ask Mormon Girl website, and blogs at Feminist Mormon Housewives. Last week, the front page of CNN’s website included an in-depth story of Brooks and her family. So it’s really the perfect time for her memoir, The Book of Mormon Girl, to be released.
Brooks divides her life into three basic sections– growing up, early adulthood/disillusionment, and maturation/resolution. In the growing up years, which comprise the bulk of the memoir, she gives us detailed and delightful stories of her Young Women’s leaders and her grandmothers, interesting, devoted, hardworking women who taught her the gospel while hiking mountain passes and doing service. She writes about the cultural dissonance that comes from being “in the world but not of it.” She writes about her adoration for Marie Osmond. All of these chapters are rich with description and detail.
Joanna’s story is one that I’m familiar with because I’ve both heard her tell it and because I recognize parts of it in my friends and myself. Maybe not the growing up in the tract house on the edge of Southern California’s orange groves, but certainly the feeling of being the only LDS girl in my high school, of being a “root beer among cokes” as she puts it. Like Joanna, I was a girl who set my sights on attending BYU and only BYU, and when I arrived there and had to adjust when I realized that it wasn’t as perfect as I thought it would be. I see her story in the story of friends who have felt pain too acute to bear, pain they associate with the church, and have left as a result. And I see her story in friends who have come back from that pain, who want to find a way to live a life of integrity within the religion and culture in which they were raised.
Brooks’s adult chapters, as well as the way she has chosen to live her life publicly, do a lot to dispel the myth that Mormon women are all cut out of the same cloth, with the same thoughts and beliefs. She shows that it’s okay to grieve for the things we wish were different, that we can find our voice, even if we’re most comfortable speaking quietly and politely, and that we can love the church and want to be part of it without embracing every aspect of it. Furthermore, she shows that it’s possible, even fulfilling, to come back and to see raising children in a home where parents come from different faith traditions as a boon and a blessing.
Brooks chose to self-publish her memoir, and while I understand why she did it, and I really do think that she has both an important story to tell and the writing chops to carry it off with remarkable sensitivity and finesse, self-publishing is always a tricky business. The Book of Mormon Girl, is an engrossing and important memoir, but it’s not a perfect book. The child and teen chapters repeat many of the same details, and while the repetition seems to be intentional, the cumulative effect was to give sort of a storybook quality to the setting. Also, as a reader, I am interested in Brooks’s childhood, especially since her teen years seem to be such a reflection of mine, but I’m even more interested in how she went from belief to disillusionment and back again. She does give several chapters to the adult struggles in her life, but I want more. I think it’s a testament to the success of her writing both in The Book of Mormon Girl and in other venues, that we want more of Joanna’s wit and wisdom. And I’m confident that she’ll give it to us.