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.
In honor of my husband’s birthday this week, I thought it would be fun to share some gems from the August 1972 Ensign and Friend! I got my hands on these issues several years ago when our Monument Park church library was cleaning out their magazine archives. They had issues going back to the 1950’s! I wanted to keep them all, but in the interest of moderation I only took home the issues from our birth month and year.
Today 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.
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.
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.
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…”
The 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…
This morning I’m sharing another illustrated book designed for LDS children. It’s one of a series which included all of the modern-day prophets to that point, published in 1982 by Eagle Systems and Community Press.
It’s telling, I think, that there is an author and illustrator listed, plus a whole board of advisors and editors. Ha! I am more forgiving of the huge committee with the context that this is just one of a series.
We’re firmly in the middle of our cultural fascination with Impressionism.
The biographical storyline is well known, hitting all the points we were taught since childhood…
…his extensive travel and outreach…
…and of course that famous carving from his mission “What e’er thou art, Act well thy part.”
A summary of his 19 years as president include the building of eight new temples, which sounds sort of charming, these days, doesn’t it. The pace of the work has changed.
I wanted to share this book as representative of a style of children’s book that we seem to produce for children: non-fiction and comprehensive (both the individual books and the series). As opposed to The Book of Mormon or the parables from the New Testament, it appears that we are convinced that the best stories to tell our children are carefully curated, factual versions of Church history. At least, those are the kinds of books I keep finding as a search through LDS children’s literature. And we love a good series! I have already come across more than one huge set of books about the past presidents of the church and rewritten books of scripture. I think it says something about us as a culture that our authors don’t write just one book about one topic: they want to create a compendium, even in children’s lit.
Looking at these books as a genre makes me wonder how well we’ve served our children. I remember carefully studying these kinds of biographies, memorizing facts about earlier prophets and wondering about their families and personalities. I read three or four versions of scripture stories too.
Lately I’ve been wondering whether we should be telling our children more folktales with a dose of magic and fantasy. We’re always trying to reach the next generation by repackaging the same message into a new form of media. Perhaps the problem is the way we’re presenting the message: dry, factual, carefully curated, and comprehensive. Perhaps we should be thinking about teaching our children important gospel lessons the way it’s been done for generations before us, with fables, and parables and legends. Where important moral lessons are pulled from a memorable situation involving a rabbit and a tortoise, for example. Perhaps those lessons would be more valuable preparation for a lifetime of balancing ethics and virtue than a few dry facts about a past church leader. Or maybe not.
Today’s book is a gem from Bookcraft published in 1966, titled The Story of Life for LDS Children by Jane Lund and Nancy Menlove. It’s about 12 x 8 inches, half an inch thick, and it feels like a standard, illustrated children’s book. But it has five chapters and so much text! It’s 75 pages long. It seems like an interesting example of a transition from the LDS children’s storybooks earlier in the century that are only dense text. I can’t tell if we had high expectations for the attention span of our children, or if they were endlessly amused by books without other tech diversions.
Instructions from the authors tell us that the book should “be of value as a story book… enrichment material for use in family night activities, supplementary material to be used within the home as parallel experiences arise in real life and as reference material for the preparation of 2 1/2 minute talks.”
The book covers the story of the birth of Tommy’s little sister and his grandfather’s death, essentially the Plan of Salvation. Most of the dialogue is thoroughly archaic, but I can’t help but wonder if it was overly precious even in 1966.
For example, Tommy’s grandmother takes a stab at answering the question “Where do babies come from?” She tells her grandson, “In the beginning, Tom, your body was very, very small. Much smaller than the tiniest seeds which Grandfather plants in his garden. One part of you was inside your mother, and another part of you was inside your father. One day these two parts were joined together within your mother’s body in a special ‘growing place,’ where babies live before they’re born. At that moment, Tommy, your body began.” A few pages later, Tommy is finally born. It’s a perfect example of what is meant when people complain about sex ed being vague and nonspecific! It’s irrelevant to our generation, but it’s sort of comforting to know there was actually a time when a discussion like this didn’t necessarily involve the words sexting or oral.
I also thought it was interesting to see a different illustration of the plan of salvation. Or as Lund and Menlove call it, a “circle of love.” I’m a visual learner, and I subconsciously absorb doctrine based solely on graphic design. I like the idea of commissioning several plan of salvation designs just to see what else we can learn.
I’m also fascinated by the women in the book. Tommy’s mother is described especially “tired” because of labor and delivery, but she looks fantastic, above, as she prepares for the arrival of a baby. She’s supposed to be pregnant in that illustration! His grandmother looks absolutely ancient, but it also somehow makes me miss the days when 75-year-old women weren’t trying to stay as hot as Raquel Welch.
While it’s not at the top of my list for one to add to the bookshelf, it is a comforting look back at LDS parenting and childhood in mid-century America.
Occasionally I’ll be posting a review of a vintage LDS book here on The Mormon Home. I am especially enamored of well illustrated children’s books from before 1990. I also have a shelf full of vintage books written for LDS adults (yep, I had to write that sentence twice). I’ll review the most charming and curious among them, especially when their content relates to the home.The first book in this review series was published by Deseret Book in 1977, called Today I Saw a Prophet by Kathleen H. Barnes and Virginia H. Pearce. My grandma gave it to me and my brother when we were very small. She also had it signed by President Kimball himself. This must have been part of a Deseret Book promotion of some kind, because, as far as I know, she didn’t have any special connection with the Kimballs. I love that Camilla Kimball signed it as well.
This book is written by Gordon B. Hinckley’s daughters, the H. in their names stands for Hinckley. They are still (still!) writing children’s books you can find in church bookstores–all these children’s board books. They have been producing Mormon culture for a long time, haven’t they? Curiously, there’s no mention of the illustrator on this book and they are listed as “joint authors” in the publication information. I don’t think either of these women are the artist, so I’m not sure what to make of the omission.
This picture captures the general theme of the book: prophets ancient, modern and current.
The doctrine is sound, even all these years later. My favorite page is this one about all the meetings the prophet must attend. It says: “Like other prophets, President Kimball works hard. He goes to many meetings. He meets with important people of the world and tells them about Heavenly Father’s church. He meets with missionaries. He wants them to try harder.”
Funny that his daughters included this observation! They must have watched their father trot off to many, many, many meetings over the years.
And here is a page about those who help the prophet. I spy a McConkie. Any guesses on the other gentlemen depicted here? Take a look at the close up below and leave a note in the comments if you have an idea. Maybe that’s Ezra Taft Benson on the right?
Today I Saw a Prophet is short enough to read as a bed time story and the pictures are wonderful. I love how they capture President Kimball’s expressions and personality. This book is a sentimental favorite, one I’ve shared with several groups of Primary children over the years. You can still order it online through used bookstores or Amazon. Add it to your library before while you can still find it!