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Heaven Up Here Paperback – November 28, 2011
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From a content perspective, the book is one of the few (if not the only) published accounts of missionary experience that I have read that is absolutely spot-on. I was out on my mission to another South American country at the same time John Williams was out. Being an American plopped down (with very little real preparation) into those fragile political situations during the Reagan years is something that I've never seen described. Williams evokes it without making a big deal of it. I was plunged right back into that affect in a really authentic and pure way.
As for the account of being a missionary, it's spot on to the experience. I appreciate that he does not deride or ridicule his former self (which would certainly be easy, twenty-some years later); at the same time, he doesn't sacralize the experience--except to the extent that human relationships and human suffering in and of themselves are holy ground. When I came home from my mission, the imperative (all but unspoken) to only express the "faith-promoting" when telling about the mission experience was a huge burden. When I got home and tried simply to tell the truth about my time on the mission, I was met with active hostility from other members of the church. In some ways, it made me actually lose touch with what was positive about my time in South America. Because I could not really honestly tell about the difficulties--the physical challenges, the church bureaucracy, the numbers crunch, the cultish aspects of mission life, the sexism that I experienced in a very concentrated form--I found over time, that I was also unable to connect with what was positive in that experience. It wasn't until I was discussing my mission with others in a non-mormon context, where I knew I would not be judged if I spoke of the full spectrum of my experience, that I realized that there were many things from my mission that were precious to me. They just weren't necessarily the things that the approved narrative ("best two years of my life") point out as being precious. It wasn't until I could tell the WHOLE story to someone that I realized that I'd lost touch with all of it, by squelching part of it.
I think John has done a huge service to former missionaries, whether they want to acknowledge it or not. He completely respects the experience in all its aspects. And by so doing he completely respects those who have been through it--both the good and the bad.
Like every other self-published book, there were a few spots that would've benefited from an editor, but these didn't impede the narrative. Overall, it is a job well done.
This book gives the high points and the silly behavior. But it also gives the rest of the mission experience, the 99% of the mission that people usually don't talk about, because of either social pressure or to keep the account concise. As such, John Williams account is the only account I know of that attempts to give the full LDS mission experience and this is what makes the book truly excellent. In a book like this, the temptation will be to simply produce a travelogue; simply communicating experiences in chronological order. While the book is basically chronological, John Williams wisely chooses to break chronology at key points to make the story more understandable, to group insights more thematically, and to fill in larger pieces of the story where appropriate. The end result is that you get to experience an LDS mission, not just see a bunch of stories.
The experience he conveys strikes me as thoroughly realistic. As one who served an LDS mission, my experiences were different, but John's experience strikes me as very honest. He mostly confines the story to the experience of his missionary youth, and there is very little reflection of the man who wrote the story 25 years later. Only rarely does he bring in post mission experiences and thoughts, usually to drive home a point that his younger self was experiencing at the time. Because of this I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to experience or re-experience an LDS mission.