What’s It About?
Tragedy hits the Bradley family when Issy, the youngest child of four, dies from a bout of meningitis. The Bradley’s are Mormons and the strict religious principles of their faith rub against the need to grieve. The novel alternates its point of view between the father and mother, Ian and Claire Bradley and their three surviving children, Zippy, Alma and Jacob.
Should I read it?
Yes. Absolutely. The death of Issy happens on-screen – she wakes up one morning with flu-like symptoms and gradually gets worse – and some will find these scenes difficult to read. I found them upsetting, but the quality of the writing and emotional intensity won me over.
This from Ian’s perspective:
It had been a special moment. He’d felt the reassuring warmth of the Spirit in his heart as they sang the simple words in honour of the sacrifices of their pioneer forebears. The bunting on the tall ships flapped applause at them, and although they’d sung quietly, Ian’s heart filled with gratitude as he looked at the children and Claire. They probably looked like an ordinary family standing on the dockside. But they weren’t, they aren’t. They’re an Eternal family, sealed to each other by the power and authority of the priesthood forever and ever. Like the pioneers, they’ll be called upon to make sacrifices for the sake of their beliefs and, like the pioneers, they won’t falter.
My knowledge of Mormonism stems from two sources – Arthur Conan Doyles’ A Study in Scarlet (AKA the first Sherlock Holmes story) and the HBO Series’ Big Love. While Conan Doyle taught me that Mormons are liars, kidnappers and murderers, the Big Love gave me an insight into polygamy and the Fundamentalist Mormons that still practice it. Not exactly the most sympathetic of portrayals.
It’s likely that someone of the faith – assuming they read the book – is unlikely to be keen with Brays take on the religion. No longer a member of the Church she’s definitely critical with the way Mormon scripture and the community generally deals with death and grieving. While some sadness is acceptable a good Mormon should feel joy that the person’s soul has been accepted into the Celestial Kingdom. This is highlighted by Ian’s parents who, after hearing of the death of their granddaughter, decide not to come to the funeral as they feel their missionary work is more important. Faith comes before family and there’s no room for true, debilitating grief.
And yet I never felt that Brays was sticking the boot in. The structural move of telling the story through the eyes of the Bradley family means we get a variety of perspectives on the faith. Claire, who converted so she could marry Ian, clearly and understandably is struggling to cope with the death of her daughter and what’s required of her as a good Mormon. Ian, on the other hand, while devastated by the loss, falls back on his faith. What unsettles him isn’t that God took his daughter at such a young age, but that his wife is incapable of seeing this is all part of God’s plan. And as a Bishop he’s bothered that his inability to help Claire will be viewed by the community as a failure.
The children’s perspective vary from the wide-eyed innocence of Jacob – heartbreakingly he believes he can resurrect his little sister – to Alma who is pissed that his faith and his father has put an end to a budding soccer career. In the middle their sister, Zippy, is trying to be a good Mormon though is struggling with her feelings toward a boy who is inching away from the faith.
All these perspectives draw a picture that while not particularly flattering never feels didactic. There’s not a single strawman to be seen, but rather beautifully rendered characters each dealing differently with the death of a loved one. While the novel’s grief and intensity is raw and powerful, the true message here is that ultimately it’s the love of family that gives us the strength and the hope to continue on.