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Sears, "Belonging to Heaven" (reviewed by Marilyn Brown) Options · View
Posted: Sunday, April 28, 2013 5:49:44 PM

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Title: Belonging to Heaven
Author: Gale Sears
Publisher: Deseret Book
Genre: Novel
Year Published: 2013
Number of Pages: 438
ISBN: 978-1-60907-159-2 (hardbound aik. Paper)
Cover: Hardback
Price: $24.99

Reviewed by Marilyn Brown for the Association for Mormon Letters

As a rule, Deseret Book doesn't publish historical fiction--especially about a real person whose story might shift uncomfortably with an author's interpretation. This is understandable.

So it was surprising to see "A historical novel" printed in bold graphics on the dust jacket and title page of Gale Sears' new book, "Belonging to Heaven," extolling George Q. Cannon and one of his prime converts, Jonathan Hawaii Napela.

I suppose there is a continuum along which a novel loosely based on an event may be called "historical fiction" and at the far right move closer to "historical fact." Since Deseret Book is the mouthpiece for a culture that values "truth" as exact as they can possibly get it, their historical fiction would naturally fall to the extreme end of "fact" on the graph. And indeed, it does.

Using the journals of George Q. Cannon,(the founder of Deseret Book), along with other prime sources, Gale Sears follows his missionary experiences with exact adherence to what has been recorded, and gives notes at the end of each chapter. Most of the added dramatic narratives are safely written in greetings and farewells.

The major story introduces one of Cannon's most notable Hawaiian converts: John Napela. We learn of his family, his service to the Church in Hawaii, and his loyalty as he separates himself from society to live with his wife, who contacts leprosy.

The work Sears does here is to add her pleasant writing to brighten the historic Hawaiian LDS experience. Her authentic Hawaiian language, names, and descriptions add to the text. She has an eye for color and a good ear for music: ". . . the pink of sunrises and the ginger of sunsets," and a sense of metaphor: "He was one of them, a child of God, paddling his canoe through the fierce storms of life." She also displays a good sense of humor when George writes: "I hope I can find a new pair of pants before returning, or you will think me the most ragged fellow."

A best-selling author, Sears has a graceful style and a relaxed sentence structure. But are her talents in this area enough to build a page-turning novel that exhibits a literary arc: exposition, dramatic progress, climax, denouement? This story is as even and steady as heaven is often portrayed--all with a similar tone, without the strong opposition that forges character inside of a strong plot. (To be fair, characters do experience limited questioning, though their course is sure.) Even the two most obvious incidents that might have furnished disparate conflict (Hattie's illegitimate pregnancy and Brother Farrer's rebellion) were simply told rather than woven into an influential element of the drama. And the encounter with Hattie's child at the end might have been better integrated into the narrative. Though her letters worked well in "Letters from a Jade Dragon Box," in this book they had no impressive tortures to reveal, but simply served as scattered expositions, and they were difficult to read in italics. Also, Sears likes to say people had tears. But she does not build the organic dramatic narrative that might have evoked them in the reader. This kind of writing has the earmarks of "sentimentality."

This work is a good example of how religion and literary art have always had trouble mixing. Remember? Early Church leaders discouraged young women from reading novels and wanted them to write their own. Their efforts did not last. There is still a huge conflict between doctrine and art. Mormons love their "true" records, and are skeptical of "fiction," not recognizing the rich awareness that may be gained from analyzing the revealing work of a literary artist (although they are learning to like Shakespeare). Writing a moving piece of art is a daunting task that begs for a willingness to follow the rules of art rather than the facts of history.

As compassionate Mormons, we are hesitant to point out imperfections in someone's creative labors. But this reticence has got to end if we intend as a people to create literature that will withstand the test of time.
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