Book Reviews | Literary Arts

Mormon Encounters with Death

Moth & Rust: Mormon Encounters with Death, put together by Sunstone editor Stephen Carter, contains 46 chapters that range from as short as one page to as many as 20. There’s poetry, fiction, memoir, sermon, meditation, drama, prose poem, and illustration. The tone modulates through humorous, to mournful, to sentimental, to harrowing. The volume is gathered into the following five sections: “Passages” (the older generation, mostly), “Piercing the Veil” (post-mortality), “Fleeting” (children), “A Wider View” (other deaths—animals, etc.), “A Single Soul” (subjective experience).

In an attempt to give each author their due, here are all of them, each with a brief description of theme (with the ones in bold commented on further below):

  • Jennifer Quist: Jesus, Relief Society
  • Paul Malan: father on a mission
  • Richard Dutcher: grandma’s veins
  • Anita Tanner: Prometheus’ liver
  • L. Hadley: abusive grandmother
  • John Hatch: mother, keepsake
  • Shayne Bell: orphan
  • Jack Harrell: mother, homage
  • Mei Li Inouye: destinations
  • Emily Belanger: Nana, asthma
  • Neil Aitken: father, phone call
  • Lisa Torcasso Downing: brother
  • Gary James Bergera: parents
  • Devery S. Anderson: Ward Cleaver
  • Angela Hallstrom: heavenly mothers
  • Thomas Kimball: visitations
  • English Brooks: D&C 129
  • Johnny Townsend: gay dying, belief
  • Philip McLemore: the Big Porch
  • Luisa Perkins: haunted
  • Nicole Goldberg: miscarriage
  • Kathryn Lynard: abortion
  • Doug Gibson: an infant dies
  • Phyllis Barber: son, bleeding out
  • Rachel Mabey Whipple: drowning
  • Fatimah Salleh: Black American
  • Darlene Young: son, organ donor
  • Steven L. Peck: what can die?
  • Brian H. Stuy: bears, baby bison
  • Larry Menlove: murder
  • Patricia Karamesines: bees
  • Sarah Blackham Dunster: hen
  • Jonathan Penny: future history
  • Eric Samuelson: Eve
  • Eugene England: trains
  • Javen Tanner: goat apple blood
  • Adam S. Miller: vampires
  • Boyd J. Peterson: ’65 Fairlane
  • Heidi Naylor: Ogden, WWII
  • Dallas Robbins: illness, meditation
  • Bengt Washburn: driving, ghosts
  • David G. Pace: Jack Flanagan
  • Elouise Bell: bucket lists
  • Jerilyn Pool: child flipping birds
  • Stephen Carter: reflections
  • Dana Haight Cattani: exegesis

The most jolting chapter was Lynard’s, following on the heels of Goldberg. No rape, no incest, no life-threatened mother: just one time without protection. “I had forgotten it was a regular day.” Dutcher convinced me to never eat ham at a funeral again, and Anita Tanner reminded me to never get cancer.

Things do lighten up. To my mind, the most imaginative chapter is Jonathan Penny’s: an excerpt from a post-apocalyptic history of the LDS Church written in 2087. It’s also the most hopeful in many ways, what with names like Mbeke and Vitelli for apostles, and nothing would make me happier than (if I had to, that is) enjoying the plague alongside this congenial writer. Steven Peck’s is another gem. By asking what can die, he persuades me the question isn’t simple. Like, a house can’t, but a home can, and his iPod case can’t, but the iPod can. Battle Creek can die twice. And music, à la Don McLean’s “American Pie” (“drinking whiskey and rye”). The wind, my love, a battery. The universe. Peck almost grows dreary but remembers, “Here in my garden, I can look upon a world cast in light. . . . I am content to know that all of this around me has happened and is happening now on this vibrant blue island thriving joyously in a waning universe.”

Adam Miller did have vampires in the conference version of his talk, which he delivered at the Claremont Mormon Studies Conference a few years back, but, sadly, they don’t make it in the book. No matter. When I experience Miller’s words through the page, I get the sensation of overhearing an ancient priest in strange cloth telling me a truth I’ll never understand, but want to. “You must yourself become a ghost.” (All right, Adam, I’ll try). The hardest paragraph for me to read was the opening to Rachel Mabey Whipple’s chapter:

Many years ago our one-year-old daughter slipped into our garden koi pond while we were weeding. I noticed I hadn’t heard from her for a while and asked Clint to check. When he pulled her out, she was limp and unconscious, not breathing, her skin and clothes the same dull grey, covered with bits of plants and pond scum.

It is awful to remember.

With horrified fascination I reread those words a dozen times before being able to proceed. I’m still shaken, despite the happy ending. Likewise, the gratuitous violence against animals makes me fear what I’ve done to them over the years, and Larry Menlove impresses that emotion the strongest. He calls it murder, killing farm animals the way he did. And some would agree. That word murder, however, made me realize that for a book about death, there were no chapters about homicide, manslaughter, or war—not that we want these things but that they matter. Maybe I should thank the editor for that, but another part of me wants to hear and feel what those Mormons go through.

Boyd Peterson’s chapter was fun, and Philip McLemore’s delightful. Jerilyn Pool and Mei Li Inouye both made me go “Ha!,” L. Hadley and Fatimah Salleh filled me with rage, helplessness, hope, and confusion, but I won’t risk spoiling either through paraphrase. Then there’s English Brooks, who cuts past the mumbo-jumbo and elicits with curious drawings some element of the genuine wizard in Mormonism’s founding prophet Joseph Smith.

Beyond Penny’s, by far the most artful piece I found was Heidi Naylor’s. I had to send an email after, just to thank her for finding a way to put phonemes in that order. Easily the most musical piece of prose I’ve read in some time, and difficult to sustain, but she does for a half dozen pages. One excerpt:

The war was all but over, everybody said. Who failed to inform Luxembourg? The Germans drove hard and the 109th held fast, only to lose four of every five men who wore the Keystone patch. Bloody bucket men. Charley Mougham checked out at Clerf castle in the fire, went down shooting. Lieutenant Welland had either seen it or been told, he couldn’t say for sure. . . . The remains of the 109th and the 110th, which had fared even worse, got sent home. Damn lucky to make it out. Everybody said.

I’ll close out with lines from Javen Tanner. But first, I’ll opine that we shall always honor Sam Brown for his book on Mormonism and death, In Heaven As It Is On Earth, but Moth & Rust, for most people anyway, will be easier to love. Carter deserves our gratitude, as do the other 45 contributors—a logistical feat. Death won’t give up, and it’s tempting to grow hardened or ironic toward it, but when people die, we need to feel it. And this collection helps with exactly that. Now, Javen Tanner:

I sat in Sheep Meadow and watched a particle
of my blood float away in the belly of an insect.
I asked, “If you could have anyone

dig your grave, who would it be?” “Oh,
I love this game,” squealed my son. “Let’s see,
A good gravedigger must have a vacant look.”

“His eyes must be empty and clean,” agreed my wife,
“and he must answer ‘yes’ to all philosophical questions.”
“True!” added my daughter, “And, most of all,

he must interrupt the instructions of weeping mothers
to say, ‘Lady, I do this for a living.’” “In spades,”
I laughed. And with that, we gathered the blankets

and the rubber ball. As we arrived at Columbus Circle,
a goat was hit by a yellow cab. Instead of blood,
red delicious apples scattered everywhere.


Moth and Rust: Mormon Encounters with Death
ed. Stephen Carter
(Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2017)

A Book Launch of Moth and Rust: Mormon Encounters with Death is today, Jan. 10, at The King’s English Bookshop Salt Lake City, 7:00 p.m.. Select contributors to the book will be reading, including Editor Stephen Carter, Phyllis Barber, Devery S. Anderson, Steven L. Peck and 15 Bytes Literary Editor David G. Pace.

Categories: Book Reviews | Literary Arts

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