Wagons West book review

Wagons West by Turley and Littke

When my oldest son started kindergarten we lived in Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City. It was there that I came to deeply love my Mormon pioneer heritage. Something about the site of the Last Camp just yards from my driveway, the thick scrub oak in my yard, and driving past This is the Place monument every day–it made me feel connected to that determined bunch of Saints who made their way through my canyon to their promised land.

Importantly, it was there that I began some casual research of the pioneer journals. Soon after I strayed from the Sunday School lessons and wandered around in the original sources I discovered that the pioneers weren’t preachy or perfect. They were real people. People of faith who, nevertheless, struggled to live their faith. Each with distinct experiences and life views. I discovered in their journals and memoirs that it’s presumptuous to lump these emigrants together or create a composite Pioneer-with-a-capital-P Experience.

Thankfully, over the years the Mormon church has done excellent work in making these writings accessible online with an extensive database found here. Recently released Wagons West is a repackaging of these original documents, easy to read with a quick pace and a narrative style that organizes the journey west chronologically. The writing is simple enough even for younger readers, but the genius of this book is that it pulls a new set of stories, anecdotes and quotes into an already familiar account.

For example, have you ever heard “The Way We Crossed the Plains”? I hadn’t either. It’s a song the pioneers came up with on the journey. It goes like this:

In a shake wagon we ride,

For to cross the prairie wide.

As slowly the oxen moved along,

We walloped them well with a good leather thong.

The way we crossed the plains. (p. 31)

I have sung “Pioneer Children” a million times and it’s nice to hear a new one! There’s also a copy of the Eliza R. Snow’s Journeying Song, drawings, photos and images pulled in to help tell the story. As a whole, the book is graphically well designed and not too heavy on text.

Aside from the “new” stories and facts, I wholeheartedly adore the careful exposition of the true pioneer journey. The authors did not shy away from nuance that adds fullness to our commonly shared history. For example, did you know that Brigham Young rejoiced when the Mormon men were asked to form the Mormon battalion because it would bring in funds? The men would be paid for their service to the United States ($16 a month) and the Mormons needed the money (p. 40)! Somehow this detail has eluded me in past studies, but it’s a piece of the picture that makes sense.

There’s also much more detail about steps the Saints took as they left Nauvoo, unvarnished and somehow new to me. For example, I had never heard the specific threats to the Saints that 1) Brigham Young and other Church leaders were being accused of running a counterfeiting operation and 2) Governor Ford warned Mormons that federal troops might try to stop the Saints from heading west (p. 16). These threats are part of the reason the Saints left Nauvoo in such adverse winter conditions.

Remember, though, this is all done in a writing style that is easy to digest so these facts are woven into a broader, familiar story we all know. The authors do excellent work in retelling a huge portion of Mormon history with enough familiar ground that most will be able to maintain their bearings while easily absorbing some of the fresh angles and facts.

Later there are some frank stories about Porter Rockwell’s egregious bragging and the conflict between the Saints in camp (p. 118). There have always been a few throw away lines about conflict amongst the Saints on the trail, but the stories in Wagons West are specific. And they resonate with my modern day experience with Latter-day Saints in all the wards where we’ve lived. The truth is, it’s not always a graceful journey. We struggle together to be civil to one another, to be faithful to our God, to be righteous and kind. We make mistakes. We hurt each other. We fall and sometimes, some Saints don’t ever come back. We are the pioneers and they are us. The more honestly we can look at their dichotomous experience on the trail the more fully we can accept our own spiritual journey today.

If you have any affection for the Mormon pioneers, you’ll enjoy this quick read. Pick up Wagons West to enhance your understanding of the early Saints, to aid in your teaching of Church History in Sunday School next year, or to give as a gift.


Book Review: Our Heavenly Family, Our Earthly Families

Go Buy This Book!

My Mormonism runs deep in my bones: it is the faith of my fathers. My life’s work–my children–is bearing the fruit of this faith. Undeniably one of the more unique aspects of my religion is the doctrine of family. A child of divorced parents, a great-great-great-grandchild of polygamists and pioneers: my understanding of family has been subject to a mature interpretation of Mormonism itself. Capturing the clarity of our doctrine on family while simultaneously allowing room for the complexity of true family life is this lovely book by McArthur Krishna and Bethany Brady Spalding, the authors of Girls Who Choose God.

Families Counsel Together


The book is not a narrative story: it’s organized around fifteen key ideas that would easily lend themselves to lessons for Family Home Evening, Primary Sharing Time or Visiting Teaching. Short paragraphs support these key ideas, reinforced by quotes from leaders. Similar to their earlier books, each key idea also includes questions that provoke discussion and thought. For example, in the section titled “Families Creat and Celebrate,” the questions include: How do you create with your family? What is one of your favorite family traditions? And, what tradition would you like to start? The quote is from Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Our birthright… is to seek and experience eternal happiness. One of the ways we find this is by creating things….Creation means bringing into existence something that did not exist before–colorful gardens, harmonious homes, family memories, flowing laughter.”

Families Work and Play

It’s hard to over exaggerate how lovely the illustrations are, all by Caitlin Connolly. Each one is imbued with rich symbolism and imagery that complements the key idea at hand. The art is a stark departure from much recent work for LDS children. It is so much more brave and opinionated. It reminds me of the kind of art work in My Turn on Earth: memorable, evocative and bold. Highly stylized, but purposeful. I love it.

Our Heavenly Family, Our Earthly Families is exactly the kind of book I am happy to support in every way and will treasure in my home for years to come. Pick up a copy online or at your local church bookstore.

“She Shall Be an Ensign” Kickstarter

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 8.11.15 AM

Friends, I want to share a worthy Kickstarter project from the venerable Ardis E. Parshall of Keepapitchinin. She’s fundraising to write a book about the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told through the lives of its women.

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 8.11.02 AM

I’ve spent many hours lingering on her blog: she gathers and posts the finest, most delightful bits of lost Mormon history. Her work is unceasingly faithful and rigorous. Parshall’s newest project is focused on the lives of Mormon women, sisters who have shaped and grown the church with their commitment and their faith. I am especially interested in her inclusion of international sisters. I have always felt that my Omi, my maternal grandmother who emigrated from Germany after WWII, is the most inspiring pioneer I’ve ever known. The stories of our international sisters deserve a bigger platform.

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 8.11.23 AMI am thrilled about the direction of the book and donating to the Kickstarter has made it possible to follow along from a distance as the book comes to fruition! Like most Kickstarter campaigns, there are lots of little surprises along the way for backers, including the opportunity to receive these wonderful cards from Ashley Mae Hoiland. They are lovely.

You’ll note that the Kickstarter is fully funded already! Please consider donating anyway. Besides the benefits of following along, this is a great chance to support a historian who has dedicated countless hours to preserving stories that are important to our culture and faith. Your donations will make it possible for Ardis Parshall to fully focus on the book. It’s an unusual and worthy opportunity to say “thanks.”



TBT Meet the Mormons

Meet the Mormons Cover

Based on box office numbers, most of you have already seen the movie Meet the Mormons! I read that President Monson suggested the title, based on a film he’d used for missionary work in the ’70’s. The book I’m posting for Throwback Thursday today was published first in 1965 by Deseret Book. It’s about 8.5 x 11 inches, 1/2 inch thick, in full color with nice glossy pages. I had heard that it was related to the Mormon Pavilion at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York, but I haven’t been able to find any concrete evidence of that rumor.

It does seem like the World’s Fair impacted the church’s approach to missionary work in some ways: an article here at the Mormon Newsroom and here in the Church News are informative. It was after the World’s Fair that we started using replicas of the Christus statue. It was at the World’s Fair that they discovered how much it helped missionary work to pass out Book of Mormons (although at the time they sold them for .50 each!). Based on what I’ve read, it feels like the World’s Fair taught many leaders and future leaders the value of reaching people in their own language, metaphorically: with updated media materials and film instead of black and white pamphlets and dense charts. It feels like this book, Meet the Mormons, is an attempt to continue in that mode of proselytizing outreach. It’s generally quite light on text, especially compared to a lot of the stuff I’m reading from the 50’s. And it has plenty of pictures.

Click through for more golden vintage Mormonism…

Continue reading…

Girls Who Choose God

Girls Who Choose God Bible Picture Book

I grew up with a brother only a year older than me and I was keenly aware of the differences between us. Throughout my childhood, I found a steady stream of evidence of inequality between boys and girls at school, at church, and at home. And just like the daughters who inspired this picture book, I, too, read the scriptures and wondered “Where are the girls?”

Then I married a man who is completely and totally my partner. Almost twenty years of his willingness to ask questions and find answers has changed me. There’s also something about nearing 40 that has mellowed me. It’s easier to let go of the need to control narratives of the past or the influences of our broader culture. I feel personally empowered to take responsibility for the way me and my family think and act about gender and let go of the rest.

And. I have four sons who need to become men.

Girls Who Choose God, Eve

This is a complicated way to explain that I approached Girls Who Choose God, with baggage hanging off both shoulders, hands full of bags, dragging a big duffel bag with its handle wrapped around my waist. This was not a book review where I thought “Cute pictures!” and moved on. I have some comprehension of the possible affects of this kind of book.

The good news is: I loved it. I loved it for my sons, I loved it for myself, and I loved it for the 8-year-old Rachel who would have treasured this book.

Girls Who Choose God Mahlah

First, the choice of stories is carefully considered and balanced. They are strictly biblical, ranging from familiar figures like Mary and Esther to heroes like Mahlah and Deborah. The selection is good but more importantly the retelling is simple and clear, in language that is accessible to all ages. I’ve made it a hobby to read as many Mormon children’s books as possible, so I am painfully familiar with earnest books which don’t capture the truth of the scripture story. Girls Who Choose God retells scripture stories in a way that is honest but direct, making it a natural choice for families to read out loud to each other or for a classroom setting.

The best part are the probing questions at the end of each story which encourage practical application of the gospel principles at hand. For example, after describing Miriam’s story, they pose the questions: “Miriam had a choice to make. She could stay hidden to avoid getting in trouble, or she could speak to Pharaoh’s daughter in hopes of saving her brother…” followed by “What choices have you made to bring your family closer together?”

These questions bridge the critical gap between learning about a doctrinal idea and imagining how the idea might change personal behavior. They guide readers to answer the “So what?” questions for themselves. It is this step that is often missing in Sharing Time and Primary lessons (and Gospel Doctrine classes, frankly) all over the church. I think including these questions is the critical difference which makes Girls Who Choose God meaningfully relevant to both genders.

These are the kinds of stories and the kinds of questions that will help my sons become men.

Girls Who Choose God, Deborah

As a young girl, Girls Who Choose God would have been an answer to some of my pressing questions. As a mother, it’s a welcome addition of scripture stories to introduce to my sons, complete with beautiful illustrations, quickly paced story-telling, and thoughtful teaching moments. As a grown woman, it’s a reminder that the answers to complicated questions are often simple and they can be found in studying the word of God.

Pick up your copy of Girls Who Choose God, by McArthur Krishna, Bethany Brady Spalding and exquisitely illustrated by Kathleen Peterson at Amazon here or through your LDS bookstore.


Children’s Books about Glasses

If there is anything Jonah has learned from being baby boy #4, it’s imitating others. After we got his prescription but before his glasses arrived we spent a lot of time pointing out people and TV characters wearing glasses. We stopped in at Target optical to try on his frames. We played around with plastic frames. And I ordered a handful of books for him to read. These would all be great books to get as gifts for a friend or grandchildren who are about to get glasses!

The best book we found was I See. You See. We ALL See. by Allison Joyce. It’s exactly age appropriate for Jonah and the glasses look like the style of glasses a lot of the younger babies wear. It’s a board book, it’s short, and the bright, strong colors keep his attention.

IseeYouseeWe also liked Who Wears Glasses? Super short and the animals are fun.

who wears glassesAnd I like All the Better to See You With, but it’s a little too text heavy for Jonah. I also like Eliot Jones, Midnight Superhero. The main character has glasses, but the images are a little layered and the art is abstract enough that I don’t feel like the glasses were really a feature–I don’t know if Jonah even noticed them. We’ll keep this book around and I think he’ll enjoy it when he’s older, as he’s sorting through his identity as a kid with glasses.

Randy Kazandy NOI also bought Randy Kazandy Where Are Your Glasses? and HATED IT!!!! It’s the story of a little boy named Randy who keeps breaking his glasses. On purpose! His Mom buys six pair up front, so she just rotates in a fresh new pair with no consequence after he wrecks them. We got about three pages into it and I shut the book and tossed it in the trash. I could see the wheels turning in Jonah’s head, “Wait. I can just hide them under the bed or leave them at the store?” No. No. No. Not cool Rhonda Fischer.

I spent the week after we ordered the glasses but before they arrived reading our glasses books and pointing out people with glasses to Jonah. Now that they’ve arrived and he’s wearing them, I’m easing back. I’m sure he’ll start noticing people who wear eyeglasses at his own pace.


Baptism Vintage Book Review

Baptism CoverToday I’m sharing a vintage LDS book simply titled Baptism. It was written by Karen Dixon Merrell, with art work by Gary Kapp, published in 1970 by Brigham Young University Press.

Baptism Disney

I’ve recently come across a few books from BYU from the ’70’s which are much more age appropriate than the “compendium” style books that were being published by Covenant and Deseret Book. I think it’s probably a safe guess that the child development gang at BYU simplified the books we write for our children. Thank goodness.  One of these days I will post a few of the children’s books I have found that are pre-1950: they are solid blocks of text.

Baptism Font

This book is much lighter. It’s loosely based on the Fourth Article of Faith and the doctrine is sound. You could still use this book for an 8-year-old today. I am crazy about the illustrations. They remind me a little bit of 1964 Disneyland (there’s something Cinderella-esque about that scroll) and I love the way they capture the style of the buildings, hair, and clothing of the time.

Baptism Parents

My favorite page is the last one, above, and I kind of wish every single LDS book ever finished with this line: “Ask your father and mother to teach you what you should know…”
Baptism Christ portraitThe illustrator Gary Kapp went on to a career in landscape painting and also produced several well known Mormon scenes, particularly a series of The First Vision. Be sure to check out his site to decide whether you like this portrait of Christ, above, or the later, easily recognizable one he also produced.

A couple of years ago I taught a class to the Young Women about the nature of God and used multiple portraits of Jesus Christ to show that different artists express the embodiment of Jesus differently–the idea is that the person we imagine we are praying to may vary, but that through the scriptures there are some things we can know about the nature of God. (Yep, Gary Kapp was indeed one of the artists on display.) Then we went on to study the characteristics of God and Jesus in the scriptures, to learn to know them better. I think there is something very important about our visual depictions of doctrine and even ordinances like baptism. These images color our interpretations and feelings about the very act of baptism.

Something to think about while you’re browsing for a book to give as a gift for your niece’s 8th birthday…

Book Review: Families and Faith


Ready for something heavy Monday morning? I’m hard at work on a scripture study program for Easter (coming Wednesday!) that I am really excited about, but I took some notes on a book I read recently and I’ve been wanting to share them with you.

The book is “Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations,” by Vern L. Bengtson, a social work professor at USC. His book summarizes conclusions from a study of cross-generational transmission of faith. Basically, he’s been studying how and why children keep the faith of their parents.

I’ve always been deeply interested in this subject: my dad left Mormonism in his 30’s, despite having been raised by a bishop in Orem. It left me wondering: what is it that keeps someone rooted in the faith of their fathers? How do the traditions and customs of a religious home bind individuals to their family? How do we integrate the demands of a family with the values of church?

I’m not trained in the social sciences, so I won’t be analyzing the methodology or validity of the study. I’d simply like to share the conclusions most relevant to those of us striving to build a Mormon home. It’s even in a list—bite size nuggets to make it easy to read and absorb!

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

First, a families influence on their children is much higher than you might suspect. In 1970, 7 out of 10 young adult children retained the religion of their parents. In 2005, 6 out of 10 young adult children retain the faith of their parents, (p. 58). The author referenced another study that “showed that if religious faith had been important to parents, there was less chance of children leaving the religious tradition of their childhood” (p. 133, and Smith & Sikkink). I think these stats should give us all some hope that our efforts as parents and family members still make a difference! The work we’re doing to build Mormonism into our lives and homes is likely to take root.

Thankfully, none of the practices Bengtson mentions are revolutionary: most of these are already regularly encouraged by Church leaders. As we strive to share our faith with our families, here are a few of the best ways to do it:

1) Warm, affirming parents (both father and mother) are the key in passing faith to their children. In Mormon parlance, if both parents are active, believing Mormons who are good to their children, chances are good they’ll raise active Mormon children.

Alternatives to this ideal parent include i) “cold, distant, or authoritarian parenting” (and a Mormon parent who mishandled an early-return missionary was used as the anecdotal example for this style, unfortunately) ii) “ambivalent or mixed-message parenting,” in other words, parents who aren’t committed to any single faith and iii) “strained or preoccupied parenting, as when parents are distracted by marital, financial, health, or substance abuse problems” (p. 79).

The book provides no magic formula for developing a warm, affirming parenting style, but when children report a close, happy relationship with their parents, faith transmission is much higher.

2) Same-faith marriages are critical to faith transmission. Interfaith marriages and divorce result in children who are unlikely to adopt the faith of either parent (Chapter 6). Marrying within the faith is a cultural norm that is implicitly and explicitly enforced regularly in Mormon communities (temple marriage, everyone), with it’s good and bad side effects. My parents are divorced, so I am intimately familiar with some of the unwarranted stigma that sometimes complicates these choices.

3) Tightly knit communities help religious traditions pass to the next generation. Mormons, Jews, and Evangelicals are mentioned as “religious minority groups” (p. 181) which seem more separate and distinct because of the time and money they dedicate to their religions. These elements also make them naturally closely knit.

4) There is a strong link between family and church: worshipping together at church and talking about religion at home are both practices that heavily influence whether children choose the faith of their parents.  The transmission of faith is heightened with a “high degree of family closeness, both emotionally and geographically, characterized by frequent family interaction, help, and assistance” (p. 181). Get that Family Home Evening going, friends.

5) Encouraging religious education by way of classes and training is helpful in encouraging children to adopt the faith of their parents (p. 48, 181). I can’t help but think of Primary, Sunday school classes, seminary, institute, and the array of available BYU campuses that assist Mormons in this effort.

6) Grandparents who model involvement in their religion and articulate their beliefs can help build faith in their grandchildren. The author spent a chapter extolling the value of grandparents in strengthening the faith of their grandchildren. While this seems to be true, the author is also the AARP Professor of Gerontology and President of the Gerontological Society of America and I think he has a bias toward the value of grandparents. Most of the studies he cited showed the transmission between parents and children was much more important. The affect of grandparents had more immediate impact on their own children (whether they were supportive of the religious traditions of their adult children) and less readily affective on their grandchildren.

For example, only 4/10 grandchildren share the same religious tradition as their grandparent. A faith transmission that skips a generation is much less likely and is fraught with the emotional politics of the parents involved (p. 181 and Chapter 5).

7) A separate study referenced casually by the author noted that “the chances of young adults’ dropping out decreased with the events of marriage and becoming a parent” (p. 133, Wilson & Sherkat). I found this aside fascinating, especially as Mormons generally marry and have children rather young, and this choice is one that is implicitly encouraged and celebrated in our communities.

Bengtson’s conclusions generally made me feel good about the structure and programs that are already in place in the Mormon church that will help me raise my children in the faith. And, although he didn’t offer much resolution for families that have been fractured by diverging beliefs, he did include a lot of anecdotal stories about these kinds of families that made me feel less alone.