I was introduced to Sarah Dunster’s fiction when she won Segullah’s fiction contest in early 2011. “Back North,” Sarah’s contest entry (which you can read here) was lively, smart, and compelling. Its main drawback? It was a novel excerpt, not a short story, and I wanted more. Soon after notifying Sarah about her win, she sent me an email with an exciting announcement: the novel from which “Back North” had been excerpted had been accepted by Cedar Fort. This was good news for Sarah, of course, but I also knew it was good news for me. It meant I’d be able to finally know how things would turn out for Magdalena Chabert, the unforgettable heroine of Lightning Tree.
But I was nervous, too. I’ll be honest: it’s one thing to write a good first chapter, but it’s another thing entirely to write a good novel (heaven knows I’m having a heck of a time), and “Back North” was Sarah’s first published piece of fiction. When Sarah asked if she could send me an Advance Review Copy of Lightning Tree to review here at Segullah I said yes, but I had a little pinch in my heart. I’m a picky reader. What if the promise of that first chapter didn’t hold up? I liked working with Sarah and thought she had a lot of talent, but I’m also not going to promote a book that I don’t think is great just because I want to do somebody a solid. So I decided: If I really like it, I’ll review it. If I’m iffy, I’ll do a general overview of Mormon fiction and mention Lightning Tree‘s publication and Sarah’s connection to Segullah.
And now you can guess what I thought, because this post is turning into a full on review. I really liked it. Really liked it! A historical novel (not always my favorite genre) published for a mainstream Mormon audience by one of the big three Mormon publishers (who sometimes let me down, I’m just saying). I was so happy to turn that last page, satisfied and confident in my ability to enthusiastically recommend this book. Lightning Tree is well written, complex, multi-layered, readable, and willing to tackle hard aspects of LDS history. The characters are well-drawn and utterly believable, painted in all my favorite shades of grey. There’s mystery, history, romance, tragedy, and all sorts of compelling themes ripe for discussion. In short, if you are in a Mormon book club — Relief Society approved or not — this is the novel for you to recommend the next time your turn comes around.
So what is this novel about, you ask? Lightning Tree tells the tale of Magdalena Chabert, a 19th-century Mormon convert from a French-speaking community in Italy. Both of her parents died on the treck to Utah, and Maggie and her little sister were taken in by the Aldens, American pioneers who eventually settle in Provo. Maggie begins to be plagued by dreams that cause her to doubt her adoptive family and yearn to dig deeper into her own repressed memories of violence and loss. All of this plays out amidst the backdrop of a Provo community in turmoil: the Saints are being hounded by the U.S. government, and whispers begin to circulate about a horrifying incident down in “Cedar,” an episode that we now know as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Lightning Tree isn’t a perfect novel. The uncorrected ARC I received had a startling number of typos and editorial issues (e.g. a missing chapter heading that left me utterly confused for two pages until I figured out what was going on). I’ve checked a few spots using the “read inside this book” function on Amazon, though, and it appears many of these problems were cleared up before going to print. That said, I can’t speak definitively on any prose-level issues since my version was an uncorrected draft. There were also a few wobbly scenes that left me unsure where the action was in space and time, and I had to go back and reread before I could establish who was talking to whom and what was taking place. I was also confused for a few chapters before it was explained how Maggie could be from Italy but spoke French, and there were a few chapters that could have been a bit tighter, with a little bit of the fat cut off the bone to move things along. But these complaints pale in light of why the novel excites me. The people who inhabit this book are flesh and blood. There aren’t any moustache-twirling villains (although Uncle Forth and his son Jed both deserve a firm slap upside the head). Our heros make mistakes, sin, and struggle, and while they do change, as all good characters must, there aren’t any 180% about-face experiences once a character sees the light. They remain flawed, broken human beings who are struggling to make sense of a difficult life. The novel wears its Mormonism lightly: the characters’ religion is an integral part of the story, but this is not agenda-driven fiction. This beautiful bit of dialogue is as preachy as this novel gets:
“I wonder sometimes if forgiving’s like anything else in the gospel–a journey. You can’t stand up and say, now I’ve got perfect forgiveness. Perfect means you’re always trying to do better. I can say I’m doing better at forgiving myself now than I was a while ago, and I hope I’m better still as time goes on. But can anybody say when they’ve finished forgiving?”
While I applaud Sarah Dunster for writing a compelling and complex novel, I also applaud Cedar Fort for publishing it. Not only does this novel grapple with violence and pain, but it does so in the context of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a tragic historical event for which Mormons themselves were responsible. Many LDS publishers might be leery of approaching such a subject, and I think Cedar Fort deserves a lot of credit for taking a chance with this book.
So support Lightning Tree. Buy it. Read it. Pass it around. Recommend it. This is the kind of work we need to see more of, but we’ll only get it if we prove there’s an audience out there. And then, when Sarah becomes a popular and acclaimed LDS author, I can say I discovered her.