Book Review: Dispensation

Angela Hallstrom’s recent compilation of LDS fiction is an impressive undertaking, bringing together 28 stories from the greatest contemporary authors our faith has to offer. And while some might quibble with a few of the authorial choices, and others might find some of the themes or language too much for their taste, there’s no question that Dispensation represents an immensely valuable compilation. While it cannot help but live in the shadow of Eugene England’s landmark anthology, Bright Angels and Familiars, Hallstrom’s work deserves its own recognition and belongs in the library of anyone with an interest in our culture.

Eugene England blew us away in 1992 with Bright Angels and Familiars — bringing together 22 authors from an incredible spectrum of Mormonism, with a thoughtful introduction and an arrangement of pieces that was artful in its own right. Hallstrom is keenly aware of the path she is treading with Dispensation, and England’s specter features not only in Hallstrom’s own acknowledgments but also in the author list and, I suspect, the thematic efforts behind Dispensation. Douglas Thayer, Margaret Blair Young, Darrell Spencer, Levi Peterson, and Orson Scott Card are found in both books. This is also a testament to both the longevity and the particular talent of those authors, and perhaps evidence of the paucity of authors in contemporary LDS fiction.

What of the other authors in Dispensation? Most of these names you hopefully already recognize, but others are new and welcome:

Lee Allred
Matthew James Babcock
Phyllis Barber
Mary Clyde
Arianne Cope
Darin Cozzens
Lisa Torcasso Downing
Brian Evenson
Angela Hallstrom
Jack Harrell
Lewis Horne
Helen Walker Jones
Bruce Jorgensen
Laura McCune-Poplin
Larry Menlove
Coke Newell
Todd Robert Petersen
Paul Rawlins
Karen Rosenbaum
Lisa Madsen Rubilar
Eric Samuelsen
Stephen Tuttle
Brady Udall

The list is a who’s-who of LDS authors; still, some of the authorial choices are problematic. Brian Evenson’s inclusion stands out as perhaps the most questionable, given Evenson’s general thematic distance from LDS topics and personal animosity towards the Church. Other authors appear to be chosen because of their prominence within the LDS writing community, rather than as a result of the particular quality of the work included here. Orson Scott Card’s story in particular, “Christmas at Helaman’s House”, is a pedantic, homiletic mess of a story, the weakest in the entire volume… and yet could one have put together a tome of contemporary LDS authors without including Card? Accordingly, I’ve come to the conclusion that Dispensation is not simply a volume of the best modern LDS stories, but is also a political statement regarding the current state of LDS fiction; Hallstrom’s book challenges us to consider the spectrum of Mormon authors, the difficulties of publishing and the sometimes-inexplicable dominance of some authors in a small (even shrinking) marketplace. The book embraces authors and themes from a deliberately broad spectrum, reflecting an international church and a body of saints that often kicks against a unitary corpus.

But the stories are good. In fact, the stories are frequently very good, excellent thematic pieces that alternately inspire and confront the reader. Jack Harrell’s “Calling and Election” frightened me and brought me to tears with a tale of callings and elections made quite unsure. Levi Peterson’s “Brothers” established with simplicity Peterson’s place as the greatest among us. Darrell Spencer’s “Blood Work” was hard to read but eminently worthwhile (sorry, Theric!). “Clothing Esther” by Lisa Torcasso Downing had such rich imagery, providing a palpable sense of reality – with all its flaws and wonders – as a woman prepared her mother-in-law for burial. Brian Evenson’s story, “The Care of the State,” was similarly weighted with a realism that was inescapable. I could go on. There are far more winners than losers in Dispensation.

That said, there are some losers (though as Blair Hodges pointed out in his review, de gustibus non est disputandum). But all of the volume is worth reading, and all of it is capable of generating rich discussion. The author choice alone and arrangement are topics worthy of debate. Dispensation is a witness to the wonders and frustrations of LDS fiction; it is full of important stories and important work-craft, and serves as a perfect introduction to some of the best works and best authors we have. Hallstrom is to be commended for even undertaking such an audacious task, and should be all the more lauded for hitting her target.

Comments

  1. Patricia Lahtinen says:

    Thanks for the review, Steve. Perhaps beyond reading it for myself, I might propose that my book group reads and discusses it.

  2. “Christmas at Helaman’s House” may be pedantic, Steve, but it is hardly a “homiletic mess of a story.” It’s a strong, pious attempt at expressing what the principles of consecration could actually entail, especially if they were to be lived amongst Mormondom’s East Bench economic elite. I was delighted to find it included, as the story has been unavailable for a couple of decades now–lost in the black hole that was LDS niche publishing in the late 80s, and unavailable at OSC’s website or in any of his various collections (or at least if it was, I couldn’t find it, and I looked). That doesn’t necessarily make the whole volume a must-have, of course, but I would be loathe to include it amongst the volume’s “losers.”

  3. RAF, again — different strokes I guess. Pious, definitely, but strong? I thought it was pretty terrible. It unavailability is quite explicable, in my opinion.

  4. Oh yeah, I really liked Blood Work too. My wife signed us up for a barefoot running class over the summer so I have recently been made aware of this entire running culture. The story makes more sense to me now, even though I liked it before.

    I especially appreciate Steve’s observation that the collection is “also a political statement regarding the current state of LDS fiction,” as well as a repository of some kickass story-telling.

  5. “Most of these names you hopefully already recognize, but others are new and welcome”

    No, I don’t recognize most of these names. So, I’m glad for a review calling attention to the collection. Thanks.

    (The Amazon link says 482 pages — and all for less than $15!)

  6. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

    As I mention in my interview with Angela H. (posting tomorrow), OSC’s contribution was my least favorite of the bunch. Great message, but the delivery left much to be desired, esp. in the midst of such well-written stories.

  7. Hunter, it honestly is a steal of a book.

  8. For the price I can’t think of a good reason not to buy the book if one has even the mildest curiosity about current LDS short fiction. Or simply short fiction, I suppose. (But I’m a philistine!)

  9. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

    458 pages. And the page count is only part of the equation: there are 28 stories (plus a great intro by Margaret Blair Young) and each is its own heady universe. Far more traveling miles than you’d get in a 400+ page novel.

  10. I’ve bought my copy and it’s next up on my stack. Given the good things I keep hearing about it, I can’t wait to start!

  11. Thanks for this review, Steve. I’m currently plowing through Udall’s Lonely Polygamist, and I think Dispensations may be my next read.

  12. I can’t wait to get this.

  13. .

    I knew when I came out of my not-liking-Blood-Work closet I would henceforth lead a lonely life, so no need to apologize.

    As for OSC, I still haven’t decided how I feel about his story. I agree that it swung into the realm of the pedantic, but my wife and I disagree on whether or not it survived the trip.

    In my interview with Angela, she said this:

    Orson Scott Card’s story “Christmas at Helaman’s House” was one of the four stories categorized under the heading “Mormon Stories” in his short story collection, and I felt it was important to include a Mormon story from Card in Dispensation. (My favorite Card story from Keeper of Dreams is the dystopian “Elephants of Poznan,” and while it isn’t Mormon fiction, it’s a really cool story, and I was glad to be able to reprint it in the most recent issue of Irreantum.)

    I haven’t gotten to the Mormons Stories section of his new collection yet, so I can’t say if Helaman’s the best of the four, but I will be quick to agree that, regardless of its individual merits, the story is not representative of Card’s best work. And given the odd inexplicitly Mormonness of, say, Stephen Tuttle’s story, I’m not sure she should have felt obliged to offer a “Mormon story.”

    As I’ve thought more about the issue, I think Helaman was selected because it was the most purely positive-to-Mormons (in the way the DB crowd would interpret that phrase) story in the collection. And it’s placement near the front of the collections suggests that it’s a road marker for such readers, letting them know the way is safe.

  14. Theric, I can agree with that assessment. The volume does sort of err on the side of deliberately edgy, so I can see OSC being there for that reassuring purpose.

  15. I thought I’d pop in and first thank Steve for the thoughtful and incisive review. I know he’s a very discerning reader, so it means a lot that he finds the book valuable.

    I also wanted to add my two cents regarding OSC’s story and why that particular piece was chosen. First, I knew that Card needed to be represented in this anthology. He’s one of the most important Mormon writers of the last 20 years. I got a hold of his most recent collection (_Keeper of Dreams_) and found a number of quality stories from which to choose, but most of these stories were speculative fiction, and not particularly Mormon. And as Th. mentioned, I feel that the best story in the collection is “Elephants of Poznan,” a great piece of literature that I was proud to reprint in Irreantum.

    But, in Dispensation, I wanted to include a story by Card that dealt with Mormonism as specifically as possible. This was the case with every author, in fact: as I made editorial decisions, I took into account both the quality of the story and the essential Mormon-ness of the story. Th. mentioned Tuttle’s story as an example of a not-very-Mormon piece. I think I read four or five Tuttle stories, and none of them was explicitly Mormon, but the story I chose dealt most directly with what I considered to be Mormon themes.

    Also: while “Christmas at Helaman’s House” isn’t Card’s best written story, and I agree that it tends toward the didactic, I found the “moral” of the story to be both pertinent and surprising. How many didactic LDS stories out there are essentially calling Mormons to repentance for building big houses? I don’t see “Christmas” as a “reassuring” story at all. It’s didactic purpose is to disturb. It might not do it as artfully as some of the other stories in the anthology, true, but I think the piece still more than earns its place in Dispensation for a number of reasons. In fact, I think it would make an interesting read for anyone who was engaged in the “can a good Mormon make more that $100k a year” discussion from this very blog just a couple of days ago!

    At any rate, tomorrow (I think?) Kathy is set to post our interview that delves a little more deeply into the selection process. And thanks again for the review.

  16. I read this book a month or so ago, and I think it’s an excellent collection. There were only two or three stories I really didn’t care for. (Orson Scott Card’s isn’t one of them.)

  17. Excellent review, Steve.

    Congrats, Angela; it sounds like you really pulled off something outstanding. Now to buy it…

  18. Great review, Steve. This will definitely get queued up on my reading list. One question, though: I’m way behind on stuff I should be reading, so it will either be this or Udall right now (with the other saved for probably several months). Any recommendation on which to go with first?

  19. In fact, I think [the OSC story] would make an interesting read for anyone who was engaged in the “can a good Mormon make more that $100k a year” discussion from this very blog just a couple of days ago!

    Very true, and well said, Angela. Thanks.

  20. Sam, in terms of bang for your buck, Dispensation wins, but I’ve heard Udall is great.

  21. I’d have both _Dispensation_ and _The Lonely Polygamist_ on the nightstand, if I were you. I am so excited about both books. I had the same reactions Steve had to Levi’s story and to Scott’s, though I wouldn’t want to list favorites. Each is good in its own way–with only a couple in the “not as good as the others” group. But a paucity of young Mormon authors, Steve? Hardly. We have only just begun. The fine LDS authors represented in this volume don’t really have a good outlet in the LDS market, other than _Irreantum_, but they publish in some of the best national journals around. Angela has done something wonderful in gathering their work. I hope that in another decade or so, there might be a good outlet for these authors to make a much bigger mark within Mormonism. As it is, our readership is pretty slim. We need not just good writers but good readers. I’m encouraged by the way BCC is getting the word out. Many bloggers of the ‘Nacle are EXACTLY the sorts of readers these authors need and deserve.

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