Book Challenge:* Letters of Catharine Cottam Romney, Plural Wife; The
Glass Castle;** and 18 Months.
Letters of Catharine Cottam Romney let me peek into the life of the second wife of Miles Park Romney, an ancestor of Mitt Romney. Mitt is descended from Hannah, the first wife (you can read more about Mitt’s genealogy here). Catharine marries Miles in St. George; the course of her life runs from St. Johns, Arizona, to Colonia Juarez, Mexico, as they escape anti-polygamy laws, and then back to Utah because of the Mexican Revolution.
Things that stood out to me:
1-Her parents weren’t too keen on her marrying Miles, not because she would be his third wife, but because his second wife had divorced him, and he had a drinking problem. She married him anyway, explaining to her parents that they were both praying for him to “over come [sic] his faults and over come [sic] temptation” and that if their marriage was right that “[Catharine’s parents’] feelings towards him might change.” After his marriage to Catharine, she never mentioned this again.
2-Little mothering details: traveling in a wagon with young children:
“[Claude, age 1] stood the journey well, driving the team where it was good road, and fighting when he couldn’t, throwing the whip and other things out, and requiring most of my time to look after him.” I read this after driving to Bear Lake with my kids. I had always wondered how women traveled with small children back then. I like knowing about Catharine’s humanness; sometimes I think women were saintly mothers a hundred years ago. But traveling with kids has never been a picnic.
3-There are many noble stories we’re not familiar with because we have cut out fifty years of uncomfortable history. Until college, I didn’t know much about the history of polygamy beyond the fact that it existed, there were laws against it, persecution from the government, and finally”“Whew!”“the Manifesto, that allowed us to all be normal again. I never heard much about polygamy at church; all the popular pioneer stories stop with arrival in Utah, or maybe getting called on a mission by Brigham Young. The polygamy stories exist, but non-historians like me aren’t too familiar with them. We have to hunt them down, we’re not fed them. They are buried in family histories and relatively obscure books like Letters of Catharine Cottam Romney.
By “polygamy stories” what I mean is tales of women like Catharine who left their families and lived with kind strangers for months at a time, so they wouldn’t be forced to testify against their husbands… or stories like Hannah Romney traveling to Mexico alone in the winter with all her little ones, so she could be with her husband in exile. Or the sweet companionship that existed between Catharine and her sister-wives”“an example of unselfish sharing, as they cared for each others’ children, and rejoiced over each others’ successes. We get the Nauvoo pioneer stories at church, we are humbled by the sacrifice of the handcart pioneers. But if we hear tales of polygamous nobility at church, they are usually edited, so that we do not see the very thing that made them noble: their commitment to the gospel by living the difficult law of plural marriage.
We’re missing out.
So: how do we write about, how do we talk about, our difficult past? Jeannette Walls faces this question in her powerful memoir The Glass Castle.** Her mother is a sometime-teacher, an artist, neglectful to the point of abuse, but also loyal to her kids; her father gives them stars for Christmas presents and tells them dramatic stories, but also wastes their money on alcohol and whores. Walls and her siblings delight in the glass castle dreams their father tells them, but scrounge for food in garbage cans at school. Walls does a brilliant job of weaving the joy and pain of her past together; she does not allow bitterness towards her parents to cloud her memory of their strengths. She doesn’t whine, nor does she excuse them: she tells the whole thing, and by doing so, she forgives.
This is why the genre of memoir is so important: it allows us to process and learn from our lives, heal from them; it also gives us a way to tell our stories and form connections. That’s why 18 Months, a soon-to-be-published manuscript from Millennial Press, edited by Melissa Baird Carpenter, made me want to write more about my mission. It’s a collection of personal essays from sister missionaries; I will be reviewing it in the fall issue of Segullah.
For now I will just say that I loved it. I read these lines: “Bugs hovered and waded through the soupy air, and our neighbor’s samba music blasted through the patch of still, grey sky between the roof and walls of our windowless room…” (from “The Butterfly” by Amy Ward McLaughlin) and I was back in Ecuador, a bewildered greenie, trying to figure out my place in the mission. And Rosalynde Welch’s “Being Sister Frandsen” articulated the difference Rosalynde and Sister Frandsen, but I felt like it could have been written about me, Emily, and Hermana Bishop, the missionary. They always seemed to be two different people, and as I read her piece I kept thinking, “I could have written this. This is exactly how I feel.” I’m grateful to the women who took time to write about their missions, and help me to see my own in new ways.
So: polygamy stories, abusive childhood, sister missionaries. Interesting books, and I have questions, answer any or all: How many stories do you know from that “lost period” in Mormon history, about 1855-1900? Should we tell them more, or will the necessary explaining of context shake faith too much? How has writing helped you heal? How does writing help you process your life?
*True confession: I did not read them all in the space of a week. But I did read them all in August.
**Disclaimer: This is a moving, powerful, well-written book, but it has bad language and violent situations.