Just because these reviews are brief and the books are small, don’t take that to mean that they aren’t weighty or worth your time. There is a lot packed into these two microtomes.
First is The Mormoness; or, The Trials of Mary Maverick: A Narrative of Real Events (Greg Kofford Books, 2016), which is a reprint of an 1853 book by John Russell, a writer and public intellectual who published several works in the various frontier presses of Missouri and Illinois. This is the first in a ‘Mormon Image In Literature’ series from Greg Kofford Books, which aims to reprint classic but largely forgotten works regarding Mormonism. The series is edited and annotated by Ardis Parshall and Michael Austin. Parshall and Austin have helpfully provided a very useful introduction to the book, including biographical information on John Russell, letters and works by Russell (which show some sensibility, if not empathy, for the experiences of the Mormons), as well as a brief timeline of the author’s life. As for the story itself, Russell pens a “narrative of real events” roughly based on the experiences of the Merrick family, some of whom were slaughtered at Haun’s Mill. Mary Maverick converts to Mormonism (despite the ‘absurdities’ of Joe Smith) and suffers at the hands of unjust Christians. It is a moving story, and while not exactly genre-busting for its time, it does display both compassion for Mormonism while remaining aloof from the faith claims of the religion. For those interested in how contemporary authors viewed the church of Joe Smith, The Mormoness is worth a look.
Next up is Mormonism and American Politics (Columbia University Press, 2016), a series of essays edited by Randall Balmer and Jana Reiss. Those familiar with the Bloggernacle will know Jana, but Randall Balmer is no neophyte to Mormon Studies, having given the Tanner lecture at MHA several years ago, though he (perhaps) is better known for his history work with evangelicals and Jimmy Carter. Both are contributors to the volume, but the other contributors are no less worthy: Claudia Bushman and Richard Bushman both have pieces, as do Joanna Brooks, John Turner, Jan Shipps, Russell Arben Fox and other familiar (and respected) names. The book looks at Mormonism in three phases: origins, shifting alliances (most notably, towards conservatism), and the future (more described by an uneasy collaboration with the mainstream than by flying cars). In terms of essay quality, all are to be recommended, though obviously the historical pieces are perhaps more grounded and provable than those attempting to predict the future of Mormonism in America — that said, the future-looking chapters are less an attempt to be predictive than simply looking at more contemporary events in an effort to prognosticate a trend. Jan Shipps’ essay on Ezra Taft Benson is particularly worthwhile, as well as a piece by Campbell/Karpowitz/Monson on the intermittent alignment of Mormonism with conservative politics (I found the interplay between this latter essay and Neil Young’s work very interesting). Both Brooks and Claudia Bushman write about Proposition 8, and their work will serve in part to not forget how the Mormon political experience was strained, perhaps irrevocably, by that period in our history. I also appreciated Peggy Fletcher Stack’s overview of how the Mitt Romney campaigns altered the relationship between Mormons and the media, a shift which continues today as the lines between official channels, bloggers, journalists and apologists blur (at times beyond recognition). If there is a weakness to the book, it is that American politics themselves have been completely turned on their head during this election cycle. It would be interesting to update the book based on Trump and the current sideline work of Romney (and that other minor Mormon, Marco Rubio).