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.