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Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America (New Directions in Narrative History) Hardcover – September 15, 2011
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“An absorbing, creative book… it will definitely become a go-to book for readers interested in the history and psychology of conversion.”—Lauren Winner, author of Girl Meets God: A Memoir (Lauren Winner)
“Once I started, I could not put it down. It is hugely compelling. All the narrative skills which are so apparent in Harline’s earlier work are now bent towards a purpose which shows what history is for: illuminating present concerns through wise, informed, and serious reflection upon the past. A superb, important book.”—Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
“I have never seen put more clearly or potently the divisions that occur in families because of religious differences. Conversions is great storytelling, combining history and heart in a splendid, remarkable way.”—Carol Lynn Pearson, author of Goodbye, I Love You
“A beautiful and moving book. Harline is a master at narrative and at making the most painstaking research look effortless. These two unconnected stories required very different approaches, yet Harline's writing binds them together with an odd, yet arresting symmetry, overflowing with integrity and insight.”—Carlos Eire, Yale University
Finalist for the 2012 Mark Lynton History Prize sponsored by the Lukas Prize Project at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. The Lynton History Prize is awarded to a book length work of history on any topic that best combines intellectual distinction with felicity of expression.
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Most impressive is the ability with which Harline sheds the comfortable realm of the academic authorial voice to write the latter portion of the book in the first person with honesty and forthrightness. A personal friend of the contemporary individual, he lays bare his own struggles to reconcile his Mormon faith with what he had learned about his friend. This book will add significantly to the dialogue surrounding this issue and all others that involve the chasm between gay men and women and their search to embrace their sexual orientation while being observant in their various religious faiths. At the core of the book is the broader underlying issue of treating everyone with respect and validation, regardless of race, religion, politics, gender, or orientation. Like any great work, Conversions transcends time and place and is ultimately about self-determination - the challenge each one of us faces to decide for ourselves what ideological paths we will take in life - and about self-invention, the brave and creative ways in which we can bring into harmony our inner selves and the outer manifestations of our lives.
Harline employs storytelling techniques to draw you in and to bridge the past and present. Jacob Rolandus's daring night escape from his Reformed home to Catholicism in 1654 is narrated in the present tense: "And now the field at last! But here more disappointment: the horse still hasn't arrived, and the friend waiting with the bag says that he can't make the journey either, because he has a bad foot" (5). In contrast, Michael Sunbloom's family reacted to his conversion to Mormonism in the past tense: "When the cousin started asking about Mormonism, and what in the world had moved Michael to convert, Michael hesitated, stepped as far into the hallway as he could [to avoid letting his parents overhear], and took the risk of answering. Big mistake" (76-77). These two stories are told alternately, one chapter relating Jacob's tale, the next, Michael's. This back-and-forth, "too be continued" construction naturally pulls readers to the next episode.
Unlike most history books, Harline puts himself directly into the story. By alternately centering Jacob, Michael, and himself as the main protagonist, Harline's book inhabits a borderland between academic excellence and dangerous self-disclosure/didacticism. The idea of "conversion" itself is the conceptual bridge between radically different times, circumstances, motivations, characters, and outcomes. The heartrending interpersonal conflicts involved in each story tie each narrative to the others, and--more importantly, Harline might hope--ties these narratives to the heart of the reader.
Such use of history is certain to make some readers squirm, not least of all any historians who believe it blurs the lines between history and propaganda. But by comparing these stories Harline is simply doing the sort of implicit work a lot of us do when we read history.
Certainly this is what Yale University Press's "New Directions" series is aiming for by presenting books which are "intended for the broadest general readership," which explains the lack of footnotes and index, although he snuck in a very detailed bibliographical essay at the end (273-298). In addition to popular accessibility, the series aims to "speak to deeply human concerns about the past, present, and future of our world and its people" (ii). Harline might be criticized from a variety of perspectives. In the postscript, he describes worrying about what his fellow historians might think of his so explicitly tying the past to the present, his decision to stress "the psychological sameness of the past rather than its otherness" (267). He worries that "fellow Mormons...might dislike my sympathetic treatment of homosexuality," (after all, he's a professor of history at Brigham Young University), "while critics of Mormonism might dislike my sympathetic treatment of Mormonism," (after all, he's a professor of history at Brigham Young University). Not to mention what his parents, friends, Protestants, Catholics, and others might think (268). Whatever the obstacles, he reports, "I wanted to try anyway" (272). He tried, and I really appreciate the effort. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I strongly recommend it.