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:
Matthew James Babcock
Lisa Torcasso Downing
Helen Walker Jones
Todd Robert Petersen
Lisa Madsen Rubilar
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.