Just blowing off some steam today. I’m trying to write through the post-martyrdom scenes from the Nauvoo era, researching as I progress. Now, I’ve considered myself an LDS history hobbyist for quite some time, although I’m reading less than I used to these days. (I assure you I don’t limit myself to the sanitized history.) I also admit that most of my study has been of the Joseph Smith era. The guy was cool–a trouble-maker and a peace-maker all rolled into one. How can you not love that? Sure, I’ve read more than most about Brigham Young and the westward expansion, but for me, once Joseph Smith died, so did so much of the excitement. Heck, his story has soothsayers and money diggers; he sees visions in stones; he hides gold in the strangest places. And yet he can fight off attackers bare-handed, sustaining only a sore thumb. And when guns are pointed at his head, they misfire. When someone tries to feed him human flesh, or when someone (like maybe his wife) tries to poison him, he knows its happening and refuses to eat. The guy is awesome.
And then he died. And the history lost some of that folksy charm. Some. Of course in Holding Back the Moon, the novel I’m working on, I skip all that bizarre, early 19th century “reality,” but I still have to deal with Nauvoo. I have to deal with the leaking knowledge of polygamy, the secrecy surrounding it. I’m finding it frustrating to write a historical Mormon world that is fact-based when so much is hidden. Oh, I can see what dates Joseph Smith proposes to Sidney Rigdon‘s daughter and what date his revelation on plural marriage is read aloud to the high council. I know when Bennet wrote exposes for non-LDS papers and what he said. I know all about the Nauvoo Expositor, why it was illegal, and how that lead to the martyrdom. I know all the peripheral happenings, but nothing I’ve read has really given me a sense of what the climate was like for the average Joe.
In other words, I don’t have a real “fall-back-on” sense of how the average citizen of Nauvoo took all this in. Of how many people came to understand that the church leadership had been flat-out lying (or re-defining terms if you want to be especially kind) about polygamy. I love Orson Pratt‘s story–or at least what I have of it. Here was a guy with a pretty, young wife who’d been sent out out as a missionary. While he was gone, his wife is propositioned by Joseph Smith. Bennet is in there again, but I’m not sure how. As scapegoat? As intercessory? She freaks, refuses, tells her husband, who then learns of polygamy as an unofficial official doctrine. He wanders off, the myth says, with the intent of committing suicide because he is so distraught to learn the truth. The town turns out to find him, even though the majority of searchers have no idea why this apostle would be so upset. Of course, he wasn’t found tying a rope from a tree branch, but sitting on a rock. Not a cliff. A rock.
His story, though incomplete, seems to me to be a pretty darn good reflection of how most people might fee in his situation. But Mormon historical novels somehow gloss over the difficulty your average, run-of-the-mill Mormon would have had in accepting the truth of it all. Certainly, the accusations made by detractors could’ve been overlooked. At first. But after the prophet is slain? After more and more people–couples–are ambushed with marriage proposals? That to me is the intriguing part of this story.
And its the part I’m currently addressing as I write forward on HBM. I do wish I had a little more concrete evidence about what average Joes were thinking, suspecting in the post-martyrdom years. If anyone knows a source that will be helpful–something that isn’t focused solely on the leadership–I’d love to hear about it. As of this moment, my imagination (and I suppose intuition) is my key source.
I would like to give a shout out to Dialogue for its array of great Mormon history articles. Today I read Richard Van Wagoner’s 1995 article, “The Making of a Mormon Myth–the 1844 Transfiguration of Brigham Young.” Of course I have to address the mantle-pass that occured after Joseph Smith’s death. This article gave me a great summation of the arguments made by Rigdon and Young, as well as the kind of concrete details a fiction writer needs. I’d found much conflicting information about this event and it was a pleasure to discover this article. Of course, discovering it means I have to throw out the last 1200 or 1400 words I’ve written. Shrug. It also means the next 1200 I write will be better, more believable and better suited to my writing strategy for this novel.