Many readers will already be familiar with the work of Virginia Sorensen; nevertheless, I preface my review with a little information about her career. Sorensen, I suggest, should be considered part of an extraordinary generation of Mormon writers and scholars who first came to prominence in the '30s and '40s. This group included nobelists, scientists, inventors, and scholars in many disciplines. Its writers won National Book Awards and Pulitzer prizes. Its scientists made discoveries worthy of nominations for the nobel Prize in chemistry and physics. Scholars included national players in a variety of disciplines, including Sterling McMurrin, who became a member of the Kennedy administration, and Chauncey Harris, Rhodes Scholar and alter vice-president and professor of geography at the University of Chicago. And we must also include extraordinary men like Lowell Bennion, Hugh Nibley, and Sidney Sperry. I'm just scratching the surface. Virginia Sorensen must be included in the who's who of Mormon intellectuals. She won two National Book Awards and stands as an example today of a writer of Mormon origins who successfully found a national audience while including something about Mormons in her work. Signature's reprint of this 1963 collection, originally published by Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., is a perfect example of this phenomenon. For me, the most remarkable aspect of these stories is the narrator. Ostensibly a young girl living in either Provo or Manti, depending on the story, this narrator is very charming, bright, and exuberant. She attends Sunday School every week with the bishop's daughter, but she isn't quite a "Mormon." Her parents aren't shy about expressing their disagreements with the local religion, one of her grandmothers is a nonbeliever, and one grandfather is a philanderer. Her father is a man of the world who works for the railroad. No parochial religion for him. By placing her narrator on the margins of Mormon Utah, one foot inside and one foot out, as it were, Sorensen creates the perfect informant for outside readers. This narrator has no desire to convert anyone to Mormonism, but she has the effect of convincing readers that Mormons are just like everybody else, with a few oddities thrown in for good measure. It's difficult to imagine what people thought of Mormons in the late '50s and early '60s, but I can imagine that Mormons seemed pretty "peculiar." Sorensen's narrator is so innocent and so wise that she gets away with demystifying Mormons, turning them into the kind of people who live in any small town in America, almost. I suspect that was very positive in its time, if you think it was important for Mormons to be seen as regular folks. Sorensen was doing Utah and the Church a big favor by writing these stories. In fact, I suspect one motive for writing the stories was the desire to pay respect to a warm and wonderful childhood among the Mormons. This sophisticated twelve-year-old narrator tells delicious stories, filled with youthful humor but also the troubles of life in small towns. I'm tempted to give the endings away, so I'll try to give you just a taste and no more. My favorite story in this collection has always been "Where Nothing is Long Ago." I am fascinated by its matter-of-fact approach to a dramatic outburst of violence and its aftermath. The central act in the story is only briefly discussed: a prominent member of the community kills another man whom he catches stealing irrigation water. Our curious little narrator, though, offers a running account of adult responses to the dilemma. She shows us funeral preparations for the deceased. She even tries to sneak us into the viewing, though she is not supposed to attend. Sorensen deftly invites us into this very private world. And it is all presented with grace and style reminiscent of Eudora Welty. --Neal Kramer, Irreantum
About the Author
Virginia Sorensen was born in 1912 in Provo, Utah. Subsequently christened Utah's First Lady of Letters, Sorensen wrote eight novels including A Little Lower than the Angels, On This Star, The Evening and the Morning, Many Heavens, Kingdom Come, and Where Nothing Is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood. She was awarded two Guggenheim fellowships that took her to Mexico and to Denmark. She also won an O. Henry award, the 1956 National Child Study Association Award for Plain Girl, and the Newbery Medal in 1957 for another children's book titled Miracles on Maple Hill. Yet she remained unappreciated at home until long after her fame faded elsewhere. She lived in Morocco with her second husband, British novelist Alec Waugh, from the 1950s until his death in 1981. She settled in Florida for her final decade and died in 1991.