Review: Joanna Brooks’ The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith

Our own Matsby illuminates Joanna’s life with this swe-eet (like as in uniquely AWESOME mixed with “aw, the sweetness of Mormon life”) cover art.

The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith
Joanna Brooks
Queenbee Industries, 2012
Amazon Kindle Edition, 243 KB (page count as yet unknown, print release slated for February, preorder info here)

Discomfited.

But mostly in a good way. That’s how I felt finishing Joanna Brooks’ memoir The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith. I found many of her descriptions eerily parallel to my own growing up as a Mormon girl with the differences being that I grew up on a farm in Utah instead of in the orange groves of California and I came around ten years later. I think it was both by design and due to her talent as a writer that I so easily felt pulled by the threads of similarity that my own Mormon girl story started interweaving with Joanna’s.

Her first chapter jumps right into Mormon culture with descriptions of Jell-O salads at bazaars, late-night liaisons with angels via the power of genealogy, food storage compiling, and even a Mormon temple calendar from the local mortuary that likewise hung by the Warburton family refrigerator. And her chapter-ending description of her confirmation where she had “the hands of my father come down upon my head and with his words command the Holy Ghost as my companion, to walk beside me, an invisible guide and guardian. This is a great sweet weight I felt being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon not just by birth, but also by choice and baptism” brought long-forgotten memories of my own confirmation and the sweet weight of both the hands on my head and a spirit I felt rushing through me, enlightening me, settling inside me even at that tender age of 8. I thank you, Joanna, for that.

Unsettled feelings arrived in chapter two: “Sparkling Difference” as I remember keenly those sparkling feelings of being “different” that strayed all-to-close to the line of being “better” even though that was not Joanna’s point (which was, instead, a nice concoction of accepting that Mormons are full of “sparkling differences and human failings.”)

Joanna is on the cusp of teenagerdom in chapters three and four and weaves in “Last Days” commentary throughout chapter three. My connections to her story strayed a bit as I don’t remember near as much “signs of the times” talk in our household although definitely some scattered eschatological teachings and whisperings in church and seminary classes. Although I did nod to her depictions of being dubbed a chosen generation. Do kids these days still feel that same distinction? Chapter four dealt with a theme of becoming the perfect Mormon women, as modeled then by Marie Osmond. It just made me a bit sad.

I have heard Joanna speak and write about her experiences of interactions with kids and adults who decried Mormonism as a cult and her having to fend off attacks at a school. It was interesting to see this more fleshed out story in chapter five and I ached for the young Joanna.

“Sister Coombs’ (giant) Tampons” in chapter six was one of the things I kept thinking about after finishing the book. I’m not sure what that says, but I didn’t even know giant tampons existed and I might be a bit scarred by the knowledge. See, discomfited.

Her depictions of chastity object lessons in chapter seven likewise reminded me of how my young women’s leaders tried to delicately describe what was going “too far”, with a few interesting object lessons that I’d rather forget. The aching reappeared as Joanna tried to navigate her sexuality and I loved how she finished out the chapter with a wish that she could talk to her 16-year-old self  and tell her that “after many years of confusion, she will come home to a house she chose herself, with a man she chose herself, a man whose body does not menace, a man who does not dream of owning her. She will share a bed with him. She will go to bed wearing her own name. Two daughters in sweaty pajamas will dream sovereign dreams in their bedrooms down the hall.”

Now, unfortunately, chapters eight through twelve get a bit jumpy. Suddenly she is at BYU and her whole world is being turned upside down by the firings and excommunications of the 90s. She is liberal and working at The Student Review and I felt like the switch from being one type of Mormon girl who wanted to believe everything to this Mormon girl who was full of questions was just too disjointed. Maybe that is how it happened in real life, but I wished for more. Similarly, she flies through her years of inactivity in two pages. You could perhaps argue that she was not “a Mormon girl” for those years, but Joanna says herself of Mormonism “it is my first language, my mother tongue, my family, my people, my home; it is my heart, my heart, my heart.” As an advocate for Mormons on various faith journeys, she could have told this story and told it well; perhaps it will be elsewhere.

Joanna’s Proposition 8 chapter “Protect Marriage” was insightful, but I craved citations for her facts. I realize it is a memoir, but an appendix would have lent credibility that would have quelled my little “is that exact?” moments (really did individual Mormons raise more than half of the $82 million dollars for “Yes on Proposition 8’? Update: Joanna clarifies my misreading in this comment below) that jarred me from the prose. Similarly jarring (although this perhaps is a critique of the genre) were the moments where I felt the story was being remembered too well and when these forced me up for air, I became a bit discontented.

Joanna concluded the book with an lovely call for adding extra seats to the Mormon table. The warmth, humor, connective threads and spiritual yearnings and testifying, all combined to repress my negative discomfited feelings, and make me feel like, as a Utah Mormon girl with a bit of newspaper ink on her fingers and dried baby boogers on my shirt, welcome at Joanna Brooks’ Mormon feast.

You should know that this book was just released on Kindle yesterday (for $3.99 which is, imo, a steal!). And today I have a review up. I devoured this book. And I encourage others to do the same.

Joanna Brooks is a national voice on Mormon life and politics, an award-winning scholar of religion and American culture, and the author or editor of four books. She has been featured on American Public Media’s On Being, NPR’s All Things Considered, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, BBC’s Americana, Interfaith Voices, Radio West and in the New York Times, the Washington Post¸ the CNN Belief Blog, and the Huffington Post. She is a columnist of the online magazine ReligionDispatches.org and offers answers to seekers of all stripes at her “Ask Mormon Girl” feature at FeministMormonHousewives.org. Her Dialogue contributions include “Prolegomena to Any Future Mormon Studies” and “Pilgrimageamong others. She also has stopped by BCC a few times (including a Zeitcast appearance) and thus adds that to her ever-growing impressive list of accomplishments.

Comments

  1. Awesome review, EmJen! I look forward to reading the book.

  2. Niklaus L. says:

    What’s up with the italicized bio at the end? That’s where the writer of the review describes him- or herself. It makes it look like Joanna is reviewing her own book. Weird.

    Does Joanna talk about her period of inactivity ending? How did it end?

  3. Thanks, EmJen. Thank you for taking the time with my book and writing such a thoughtful, quality review! ‘Ppreciate ya, BCC.

  4. PS Print will arrive in a couple of weeks via amazon, but I can take preorders at my website.

  5. Niklaus,

    The italicized bio is a conglomeration of Joanna’s book flap bio with a bit of added links and info provided by that I thought would be of interest to BCC readers. Sorry for the confusion.

    Yes, she does talk about her inactivity ending, in chapter 10, “Pioneer Day,” which was a beautiful juxtaposition of Joanna’s ancestors emerging from rough and difficult miles “do we come through silent or singing? Do we come in company, or do we come alone?” with her own. It’s lovely.

    Joanna, I’ll add/link to your preorder info up above!

  6. Thanks, Em. Also, just ran back and checked the Prop 8 factoid you cite. Trying to be careful. In the book, I say total raised (on both sides) was 82M, and that Mormons gave more than half of the _support_ for the Prop. Trying. To. Be. Careful.

  7. Ah, thanks for the clarification. I read that wrong. But again, that could have been clarified by a citation of sorts that broke it down.

  8. such a good review, EJ!

  9. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    I listened to the podcast on Mormon Stories where Joanna was interviewed by John Dehlin and found her responses to the interview to be very engaging. She seems like the kind of person you could meet at the same table at a ward social and easily strike up a conversation. If that type of personable appeal made it into the print, it should be an enjoyable read. Should we still buy the book if we’ve heard the podcast?

    “I did nod to her depictions of being dubbed a chosen generation. Do kids these days still feel that same distinction?”

    I don’t think they feel it in the same mystical way that it was promoted back then.

  10. Emily, Mormonsfor8 probably had the best information about how much of the money came from LDS sources, and Joanna’s figures match those of Mormonsfor8. The site is no longer online, but you can find it at the Wayback Machine.

  11. Jessica B. says:

    Congratulations Joanna! I always appreciate what you have to say. I will look forward to reading this.

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