So I’m writing this novel, see? It’s a Mormon story, but not intended for Mormon consumption only. It’s basically about Holly, a Mormon woman who, as a young adult in the 1970’s, unknowingly married a homosexual returned missionary. It didn’t go well. In the days immediately post 9/11, she begins a redemptive journey to visit her ex-husband and get the answers, the explanations, she lacked these thirty years. Running as a subplot is the story of Joseph Egbert, the Unknown Pioneer of the This is the Place Monument, the man who drove Orson Pratt’s wagon, the first to enter the Salt Lake Valley and, a pioneer who became a reluctant polygamist. I use the Egbert subplot as a conceit to mimic, to varying degrees, the conflicts faced by Holly’s ex-husband as he came to terms with his sexuality and his place in society. The analogy is not without its flaws, but I find it useful enough. The problem for me, the writer, is that both the primary and secondary plotlines pivot on hot button topics that split the religious and secular worlds. If this story were written for Mormons with a traditional Mormon perspective, the tale would be drastically different than if told for secularists with a secular perspective. When I set out to write the novel, I determined to write it in such a way that my audience could be both religious and secular. In other words, I wanted my cake and to eat it too.
I suppose it’d be fair to say this novel is as much a theoretical treatise as a story. An experiment I’m crafting. As with most experiments, success is far from guaranteed. (Feedback is always welcomed.) But, since I haven’t had much free-reading time lately and therefore have no review to post and subsequent Discussion, I decided to post an early excerpt from the Egbert storyline and, tomorrow or the day after, begin laying out for anyone remotely interested how I think a writer can create literature that serves as a bridge between the religious and the secular worlds.
Friday, April 19, 1839
JOE EGBERT AND HIS BROTHER Robert stood in the back corner of the Ellison yard, quartering logs into five feet lengths of fencing. The wood was black walnut, so it split readily, but not easily, and possessed the uncanny knack for mocking the two Mormon youth any time one of the Quincy locals passed along Bancock Road, be it on foot, on horseback, or in a cart. As Robert dragged another busted-up attempt across the soggy yard to the discard pile beside the Egbert wagon, Joe wrestled with the recurrent desire to knock his brother face down in the mud.
“We’ll be warm tonight,” Robert grinned, his teeth looking yellow against his winter-burned face.
Instead of punching his brother, Joe snugged down his hat for the thousandth time. “Mr. Ellison ain’t hired us to make ourselves warm with his wood,” he said. With a lenient smack, he set the blade of his axe long-ways with the grain and raised it again, the wood clinging on.
Robert guffawed. “Oh, I think he has.” He shuffled back to the splitting stump like a slave with legs cast in iron.
“You ain’t funny.” Joe brought the axe back down and the section of walnut trunk split cleanly down the middle.
To Joe’s way of thinking, there wasn’t anything funny about the situation. After Missouri governor Boggs declared hunting season open on the followers of Joseph Smith, the winter exodus of five thousand Mormons, many as bare-footed as empty-handed, brought the Egbert family across the iced Missouri River and to the Ellison’s doorstep. Joe knew the Egbert family and the rest of the Mormons must have looked like nothing more than a layer of filthy, bedraggled frill to a town trying to keep afloat on the business the barges brought down river. But the preachers and the mayor asked its citizenry to look into the haggard eyes of the Mormons and see instead the eyes of Christ, ahungered, sick, and naked. The outpouring of the town’s generosity weakened Joe’s knees and strengthened his resolve to earn his keep. The entire town was sacrificing so that the Mormons could meet the spring with their bellies quieted, if not full, and with dignity, if not prosperity. Why his brother didn’t just say “Thank you” and keep his mouth shut puzzled Joe as much as why some people sought to hurt—to fight, even kill—one another all because they thought of God in different ways.
Robert sat on his hams, clear of his younger brother. “Don’t go pretending you ain’t glad of a few pieces of wood to burn tonight.”
Joe grunted. “It’s just we got a job to do.”
Mr. and Mrs. Ellison had only daughters, two of them, and each was sprouting womanhood in ways that made Joe nervous. While the rest of the Egbert family nightly took up floor space in the Ellison’s three room home, Joe and Robert slept under the wagon parked on the south side, out of the worst wind. They curled up on planks covered in old newspapers. For walls they draped layers of quilts from the wagon bed and weighted them down with rocks. Even though the worst of the nights were likely over, the snow gone, and the ground soft enough to get the posts in once the splitting was done, the darkness stubbornly shook Joe’s bones, sundown to sun up. No one appreciated more than he did that Mr. Ellison had given the brothers permission to burn any rails that didn’t split right.
“You gonna help?” Joe said as he picked up one of the half rails he’d just severed and laid it across the splitting stump.
“Looks like you don’t need me no more,” he said, but he stood and wrapped his hands around the tail end of the rail so his brother could set the blades easier.
“You’re getting worthless in your old age.” Joe took aim.
“You’re hurting me, little brother.”
Robert tipped his head so that the brim of his hat offered some protection against flying splinters and Joe slit into the grain, setting the axe. He huffed when he examined the blade’s position.
“I’m off kilter.”
“Robert let go of the wood, and Joe put a foot atop the rail. As he waited for Joe to yank out the blade and decide if the rail was salvageable, Robert straightened and stretched his waist, twisting, his arms out like a windmill.
Joe noticed his brother stop mid-motion and drop his arms. Squaring his body with Bancock Road, Robert blew out a long, quiet whistle, which Joe ignored. He wondered if he couldn’t set the blade just as well without Robert’s help. He lifted the axe, but Robert’s voice suddenly cut in, claiming his attention.
“Lookie there, Brother Joe.” Robert turned back around and the gleam Joe saw in his steel-blue eyes brought the axe back to his side. “Someone’s come to see you.”
Joe Egbert glanced beyond Robert. Mary Caroline Allred, dressed in homespun and wearing a tattered green shawl, stepped onto the Ellison property, her eyes downcast. Her head was bare and on her arm she carried a basket of brown eggs. The too-short hem of her skirt was spattered with mud.
“Good morning, Mary,” Robert called.
The girl glanced up, and her cheeks colored. She was sixteen and built like the axe handle Joe held in his hand. She hurried toward the Ellison’s front stoop, and Joe lost sight of her.
Joe repositioned the rail on the stump. “Leave her alone.”
Robert straddled the wood with his hands.
“She likes you.”
“You should call on her.”
Joe soured. “Just hold the rail.”
“You can’t pine away over Emmie Wilkins forever.”
“I said, I ain’t interested.” Joe let the axe fall and the section of walnut split perfectly.
“It ain’t to your shame that Emmie had other ideas. But that girl?” he nodded toward the location Mary Caroline had last been.
Joe stared at him hard, thinking maybe he better put down the axe.
“She’s willing,” Robert batted his lashes at Joe. “Fact is,” Robert went on, “Mary Caroline Allred can’t take her eyes off you.”
“That girl can’t take her eyes off the floor.” Joe handed him the axe. “Your turn.”
“So she’s shy,” Robert said without seeming to notice the tool Joe offered. “You ain’t.”
Joe shoved the axe, cross-wise with the blade pointing upward, against his brother’s chest.
Robert’s hands automatically clenched about the handle as he danced two hops backward, trying to keep his balance. “She’s pretty. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Just get to work.”
Robert leaned on the long handle and grinned a cock-eyed grin. “And lonely.”
Joe reached to retrieve the axe, but Robert stepped back. “She looks like an underfed hen.”
“And you’re ‘bout as smart as a rooster. A perfect match.”
Joe bent down and picked up a split rail in each hand. “You court her.” He carried them toward the back wall of the house, where Mr. Ellison asked they pile the good posts until he had enough split to get one side of the fence up.
“Maybe I will.” Robert followed on his heels. “Maybe I will.”
Joe threw one post down onto the pile. It hit hard, about half-way up, and rolled down into the mud. “You leave her alone.” He heaved the second post, higher and with even more gusto. It smacked against the wall of the house, chipping the whitewash.
Robert grimaced, making a sucking sound. He was wagging his finger at his brother when the back door flew open and Mrs. Ellison rushed out, accompanied by the sounds of a harpsichord and followed by Susannah Egbert, their mother.
“Don’t worry, ladies.” Robert said, pulling off his hat as Mary Caroline’s face appeared in the doorway. “Joe here don’t know his own strength.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.”
Mrs. Ellison stepped onto the boards that covered the muddy ground outside the door and examined the scarred paint, her skirt heisted. Their mother said, “Joe’ll get that painted right up for you.”
“Yes, ma’am, I will.” Joe’s eyes met his mother’s, then traveled over her shoulder. Mary Caroline’s blue gaze bore into him like a memory into a guilty conscious.
He felt Robert lean into the back of his shoulder, heard his voice hiss low in his ear. “She’s awful pretty.”
Joe shoved back with his shoulder, but Robert had sensed it coming and stepped clear. The way Mary Caroline retreated into the house left Joe figuring she’d overheard.
Mrs. Ellison straightened and sighed the kind of sigh that casts ahead of a person like a hook on a fishing pole. On the intake she seemed to have caught a catfish of a smile, which she held in place with clenched teeth. “Don’t fret over it, Joe.” Her pallid cheeks hardly moved a muscle. “These things happen. Just be careful stacking the rails from here on out.”
“Yes, ma’am. I will.”
Joe’s mother extended her hand and helped the woman clamber back inside the house. The door closed.
Robert looked at him slyly. “I hear the Allred family’s housed over in the Methodist church. Maybe I’ll feel like praying tonight.”
Joe faced him, stared. He brushed by his brother, heading back to the splitting stump.
“You know, they say the skinnier the bride, the fatter the babies she makes.”
Joe stopped in his tracks.
“All those little Mormon babies, just waiting to come down from heaven.”
Joe felt something ball up inside him. Not anger exactly, but whatever the feeling was, it pulled his fingers into fists as sure as if each tip was connected with marionette strings of iron to the stone churning inside him. Joe wheeled and rushed his older brother, landing one and then the other of those fists solidly against either side of his jaw. The second swing, the left hook, sent Robert flying into the pile of well-split rails.
From inside, Joe heard the women’s exclamations and the sounds of their feet padding quickly back across the slat floor. When Mrs. Ellison burst from the door, Joe stood over Robert, shaking the pain out of his fists and watching his brother twist his jaw back and forth. Susannah Egbert dropped from the doorway, never-minding the mud. She pushed Joe out of the way, but, as she stopped over her elder son, she glanced back at the younger, her mouth set in a hard line.
Joe, in turn, glanced at the dumbfounded faces collected in the doorway, Mrs. Ellison, her two daughters, each pulling the other’s shoulder to see the happenings, and behind them on tip-toe, Mary Caroline Allred, suddenly looking more like a buzzard than a chicken, what with her neck stretched like that.
“I’m done for the day, Ma’am,” Joe said. Turning, he stomped away, his boots slogging mud until he stepped onto the boardwalk lining the Ellison’s side of Bancock Road and began walking toward the edge of town.
Thanks for reading! Please visit again and look for my Discussion about why I wrote this scene as I did and how I hope it provides a useable bridge for both secualist and religious readers. (And yes, I promise to define my use of the word “secularist.”)