May 08 2013

How the Western Saints Lived: A Review and Summary of “Mormon Country” by Wallace Stegner

This is the second post in a three-part series reviewing and summarizing the CNU21 suggested reading list. CNU21 is this year’s annual Congress for the New Urbanism conference and will be held at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah May 29th through June 1st, 2013. The first book review and summary discussed, “Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning,” by John W. Reps.

Written in 1942 and updated in 2003, “Mormon Country” by Wallace Stegner, with an introduction by Richard W. Etulain, is a comprehensive look into the lives and folklore of pioneering Mormons until about the 1930s.

Mormon Country cover

Stegner wrote 30 novels before his death in 1993. Most of his work discusses the importance of preserving the American West’s environment and American history. He also dabbled in fiction.

In this historical fiction/non-fiction/folklore novel, he has chosen to change perspectives regularly, allowing each chapter’s subject matter to be addressed in the most appropriate and accessible manner possible. Mixing first, second, and third-person narratives allows the reader to immerse themselves in the intimate chapters that discuss daily life, and step back for analysis when discussing politics, religious feuds, and economic struggles.

Due to the mixture of perspectives, topics, and length at a reasonable 362 pages, this is a wonderful book for history nerds with short attention spans.

The novel is intended for anyone who is interested in American Western history and/or Mormon folklore and history. For myself, it was an enjoyable, light read. Anyone who can read above a 7th grade level should have no problems reading Mormon Country.

The intimate details of some of the chapters made me feel like I was reading someone’s diary. It was fascinating to see life in the 1800s through a Mormon’s eyes, even if only for 30 minutes. The daily cycle of communal living as described in the novel seems utopian yet restrictive.

Mormon Country discusses life in Mormon pioneering settlements called villages, the structure of the church, the attempts made to destroy the church, heroes, villains, political strife between the USA and the Mormon lands, anecdotes, and myths.

Daily life in the quintessential Mormon village of Arcadia, Utah was the setting for my favorite chapter in the entire book. Each community member had a certain job chosen by the village church leaders, and was “compensated” by adding value to a recorded account. No money was exchanged for labor, but “credits” were earned for families through hourly “wages.” It was an interesting mix between communism and bartering, as far as I can tell. At the end of each calendar year, all debts were cleared and the town started fresh. No outside laborers or goods were allowed in Arcadia.

Mormons referred to themselves as, “saints,” and everyone else as, “gentiles.”

Nephites, old men of Mormon religious folklore that appear much like Christian angles, disguise themselves as poor travelers. Those Saints who did not help the worn old man saw bad luck and health. Those who offered the Nephite hospitality were blessed. It’s an intriguing test of religious commitment.

Did you know Mormons had their own language? The written language of “Shibboleth” was a phonetic alphabet, utilizing a lot of circles and even some hieroglyphic influences in its form. It faded from use in the 1870s.

Shibboleth Chapter Page

Something that really bothered me while reading Mormon Country was that there are no pictures. The author goes to great lengths to describe maps and village designs, sometimes taking hundreds of words to do so. A simple diagram or map would have been much more accessible to the reader.

Stegner is a lovely writer, but sometimes gets caught up in his own colorful language. Double negatives and other simple grammatical errors occur frequently throughout the book for the sake of overly flowery language.

I greatly encourage anyone who is interested in going to any CNU21 session relating to Mormon culture to read this book before going to the conference. It’s short and light enough, you may even be able to read it on the plane trip to Salt Lake City.

The tour that is most heavily related to the topics covered in Mormon Country is, “SLC’s Main Street: History, Ideology & Urban Form.” The tour is on Friday, May 31, from 10:15am to 12:15pm, and it just $20 for CNU Members and $25 for non-members.

There are other 75 new and used copies available on Amazon. To find a copy for yourself, the ISBN-13 is: 978-0803293052.

What about Mormon culture interests you?

Credit: References linked to sources. Images taken by author.

Aascot Holt

Aascot Holt is an undergraduate at Eastern Washington University, pursuing a major in Urban and Regional Planning and a minor in Geography. She will graduate in the spring of 2013. She is from Stevenson, WA and currently lives in Spokane, WA in a brick 1936 kit house. She is most intrigued by small-city and small town planning, parks and recreation planning, long-range planning, and historic preservation. She hopes to continue her habit of being involved with many planning projects at a time, and fears being pigeonholed. Aascot maintains the “Being A Planning Student” Tumblr as well as her planning-centric blog, The Comprehensive. She is currently writing Cheney, WA’s entirely new comprehensive parks, recreation, and trails plan, completely pro bono. More can be learned about her endeavors via LinkedIn.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 8th, 2013 at 9:23 am and is filed under CNU 21, The Congress for the New Urbanism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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