Dispensation: An Enthusiastic Review

Dispensation: Latter-Day Fiction
Edited by Angela Hallstrom
Introduction by Margaret Blair Young
Zarahemla Books, 2010

A confession: before I read Angela Hallstrom’s debut novel in 2008, I didn’t care much about LDS fiction. To me, that genre meant Jack Weyland and Gerald Lund and Anita Stansfield–overtly inspirational stories of mediocre literary quality that barely skim the surface of what it means to be Mormon, not to mention what it means to be human. Friends recommended a few titles that pleasantly surprised me with relatively solid writing, realistic characters, and engaging themes; for the most part, these stories even avoided the moist-eyed, husky-voiced spirituality that tainted the usual mainstream fare. But saying a book is “very good for Mormon lit” is a half-baked compliment at best, kinda like the time someone told me I was “in great shape for someone with seven kids.”

Hallstrom’s novel-in-stories, Bound on Earth, was my first encounter with unconditionally excellent fiction written by and for Latter-day Saints. This woman knows her stuff. And so, when I heard she was compiling an anthology of LDS short stories, I was delighted. And when the title, Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction was released recently by Zarahemla Books, I was more delighted. And when Angela dropped off a review copy I was even more delighted. And when I read the first story and realized just how good LDS fiction can be, I was beyond delighted.

But none of that compares to how I feel after finishing the volume. Delight still figures into the mix, to be sure, but a whole lot of other words now share the stage of my personal response: amazement, satisfaction, gratitude, respect, anticipation. The quality of writing in this anthology exceeded my already-high expectations. Its stories engaged my mind, heart, and spirit so thoroughly that I felt fully gratified as a reader–even blessed. And taken as a whole, its artistic and spiritual potency leaves me deeply impressed by the talent of our very own fiction writers, not to mention excited for the future of this genre.

Intrigued yet? Take a few glimpses inside the covers: A white missionary in South Africa is targeted by anti-apartheid rioters. A bishop’s wife, fleeing home in distress over a delinquent son, finds hope through the ministration of a homeless street preacher. A married couple sings hymns in a Mormon chapel perched at the edge of the disintegrating universe. A Native American girl in the 70s is uprooted from home to live with an LDS family who tells her she’ll “turn white” when she’s more righteous.  A zealous new convert unravels after administering a life-saving priesthood blessing. An ex-convict finds love and stability in the home of an aging mother and socially ostracized daughter. A youngish woman struggles, both literally and metaphorically, to dress her mother-in-law’s body in temple clothing for burial. A former bishop commits suicide by laying his head on the railroad tracks.

If you’re thinking this sounds like powerful and poignant stuff, you’re right. While I didn’t fall in love with every story (ironically enough, my least favorite was written by the renowned  Orson Scott Card), even the more subtle pieces touched me meaningfully. And a few packed a punch so hard I saw stars. One of these is Jack Harrell’s “Calling and Election,” in which a seminary teacher is visited by a messenger from either God or Satan (I’m still not certain) and signs a paper to make his calling and election sure, with harrowing results. Its core message–“Even your goodness is your enemy”–still has me spinning in meaningful thought a month later. Another is “Wolves,” a surprisingly brutal yet ultimately transcendent story written by BYU’s Douglas Thayer. This account of a young man victimized by post-WWII transients effortlessly carried me from the depths of violence (implied, not described) to the heights of redeeming love. It hurt to read, but it healed its own wounds. Likewise, the editor’s own contribution, “Thanksgiving,” vividly captures the bittersweet flavor of family relationships and reminds us that joy and suffering go hand-in-hand. And I believe this to be the most remarkable feature of Hallstrom’s anthology overall: its exploration of the spiritual dynamic between darkness and light; its true-to-life illustrations of how good and evil give each other existence and meaning in the best 2 Nephi sense.

Since women’s issues are my particular interest, I’m especially pleased to see so many female authors included in this collection: the work of Lisa Torcasso Downing, Arianne Cope, Lisa Madsen Rubilar and many others speaks to the richness of the literary art Mormon women are creating today. Yet this anthology’s value reaches beyond its contribution to Mormon studies. We tend to give our authors bonus points just for being Mormon, and/or for writing within a Mormon context. And the Mormon-ness of Dispensation is definitely part of its appeal. But its literary excellence stands independent of its LDS relevance. Contributing authors have won awards ranging from the prestigious national Flannery O’Connor award to awards from major national magazines to awards from LDS publications like Dialogue and Irreantum.

Although I’ve already implied as much, I’ll come right out and say it: this is not a title for every Mormon reader.  The book would be rated PG-13 for mature themes and light profanity; it includes no graphic violence or sexuality but draws on both of these elements thematically. Sophisticated and complex and thoroughly contemporary, it’s better suited for the shelves of a university-level English department than the shelves of Deseret Book. Whether it belongs on your shelf depends on your personal literary taste. If you enjoy the style and scope of authors like Weyland and Lund and Stansfield, you probably won’t enjoy what Hallstrom offers in this collection. But if you’re hungry for engaging fiction that will challenge and probe as well as inspire you as a Mormon and a human being, Dispensation will surely satisfy.

Dispensation is available for purchase on Amazon.com as well as directly from the publisher. For a comprehensive preview of this landmark anthology, read Margaret Young’s introduction here.

About Kathryn Soper

(Founding Editor) is the author of the memoir The Year My Son and I Were Born (Globe Pequot Press, 2009) and the editor of four published anthologies. She contributes to Mormon forums from Meridian Magazine to Sunstone on a variety of topics including gender issues, disability, mental health, sexuality, family life, and spirituality.

19 thoughts on “Dispensation: An Enthusiastic Review

  1. Thanks for the review. I’ve been a “less active” fiction reader for years, but this sounds like something to check out. Maybe I’ll be reactivated?

  2. Thanks, Kathy. I pre-ordered the book last fall, and it arrived just as my reading for the Whitneys started to amp up, so I never got to it. It sounds like I have no excuse now and need to get reading!

  3. I also really enjoyed the book; not every story was my favorite, but they were all well-written. My only complaint was that I’d already read many of them in Dialogue and Irreantum during the last few years. And despite the fact that so many people love “Calling and Election” I don’t really like it.

    It is a great introduction to the many different facets of Mormon literature and the possibilities that are out there. And it’s just a great book.

  4. i’m so out of it with these sorts of things, but i’m beyond intrigued. i loved bound on earth and i love angela and i’m going to buy it.

  5. I’m really looking forward to reading Dispensation, too! This review reminded me of that. I admire Angela as an editor and a writer, and I hope this anthology has a long and happy life.

    I know this may not be the direction you want the discussion to go, but forgive me if I stick up for Lund for just a second. His most recent book, the Undaunted, was pretty good, and I think compares favorably with other historical fiction books, including non-LDS ones. His writing (or his editor?) has improved by leaps and bounds since his earlier books. I don’t mean to condemn with faint praise here. It’s a good book. It has flaws, but I think they are more indicative of the historical fiction genre than the LDS author or LDS themes.

    I hate cheesy writing, and I hate cheesy depictions of faith, and I am always sensitive to those. But really, not all LDS fiction is cringe-worthy like that. I’m thinking of Waiting for the Light to Change, for example, from last year’s Whitneys, or In the Company of Angels, from this year’s. There is plenty of good stuff out there, both literary (Dispensation, Rift, No Going Back) and genre (Counting the Cost, All the Stars in Heaven, Lemon Tart).

  6. Like Emily, I’m a little disturbed by this review’s condemnation of popular LDS fiction (though I’ve never read Weyland, and haven’t touched the others since I was a teenager). I don’t think popular fiction—LDS, inspirational or otherwise—has to plumb the depths of the human/Mormon experience. Sometimes it can, sometimes it doesn’t have to, and sometimes it really shouldn’t.

    I don’t think it’s necessary to condemn or even dislike popular/genre fiction to enjoy literary fiction. I read both, usually with different expectations. And I enjoy both. I’d love to see more literary LDS fiction, but clearly those authors have done something many people liked.

  7. >>”If you enjoy the style and scope of authors like Weyland and Lund and Stansfield, you probably won’t enjoy what Hallstrom offers in this collection.”<<

    I like Weyland and Lund. I also like Maurine Whipple's "The Giant Joshua" and "Bound on Earth." I'm looking forward to reading "Dispensation." I read and enjoy "Irreantum." I've read several of Douglas Thayer's books.

    Liking popular LDS lit doesn't mean turning up your nose at the more literary lit.

  8. Picture a Venn diagram with people who love LDS genre fiction in one circle and people who love LDS literary fiction in the other. There is an area of overlap, but it’s small compared to the separate spaces. What I said was that if you enjoy traditional mainstream LDS fiction writers you PROBABLY won’t enjoy Dispensation, and I stand by that assumption.

    I’m delighted to hear from those of you in the area of overlap–just know that you’re part of a minority population in LDS lit.

  9. Kathy, I’m not saying LDS genre fiction has to be your thing. Frankly, a good chunk of it is not my thing. Even so,I’m starting to see the genre/literary division as parallel, rather than hierarchical. Meaning that well-crafted (and I do mean well-crafted; again, I’m anti-cheese) genre fiction is a type of writing that runs parallel to well-crafted literary fiction, not necessarily beneath it. I think that those of us in the–admittedly small–area of Venn diagram overlap would agree.

  10. I should have and shouldn’t have read this review before finishing my review of the same book. The structure of the first half of your review coincides precisely with what I put together in my quick rough draft! Back to the drawing board…

    [great review, btw!]

  11. Reading is my most relaxing, down-time experience. I can’t stand l.d.s. fiction. I enjoy and learn from most of Orson Scott Card’s columns in Mormon Times but could not force myself to finish his fictional works on old testament women. I refused to read the work and the glory series. Where is the caliber of writing that compares to “The Help”? My experince with L.D.S. fiction is that it is so shallow.
    Ed

  12. .

    Well, Ed, I’m happy to say this book should shatter your provincialism.

    You know what they say about early birds!

    I do. And I took way too long in writing mind. Thank goodness it doesn’t taste like yours at all. (Although I will add I was careful not to read yours until mine was completely finished.) (Check Motley Vision on Monday.)

  13. There are many genres within the LDS fiction market. I don’t see any reason to consider it as only two. It’s true that some of these genres are more prevalent, but lately we’re seeing everything from LDS fantasy to LDS Horror. And that’s just within the context of the fully active LDS characters who go to church every week.

    While the LDS market is niche, there is too much range within that market to label it as a single genre.

    Chas

Comments are closed.