Card coda: Saints

by Orson Scott Card

[This article first appeared in Vector, the journal of the British Science Fiction Association.]

In the September 1992 Vector I wrote an appreciation of Orson Scott Card, focusing on his SF and fantasy work. I didn’t mention his non-SF novel Saints, which is about the early Mormon church in the nineteenth century. Not only hadn’t I read it, but I couldn’t see what relevance it might have to Card’s late twentieth century SF.

Now I have read it, I can see that this reasoning was completely out, so for the benefit of Card completists I’d just like to say a few words about it.

First off, I said in my article that Wyrms features Card’s first female protagonist. Not so. Saints was published in 1984, quite early on in the Card corpus, and is primarily the story of Dinah Kirkham. She is born into a downwardly-mobile family in Industrial Revolution Manchester, becomes a Mormon and emigrates to America where she becomes a key figure in the young Mormon church, married (at different times) to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. How much of her life reflects that of Card’s own great-something aunt’s I don’t know, but the book purports to be written by one “O. Kirkham” of Salt Lake City, a descendant of Dinah’s brother.

The book has the full quotient that we have come to expect from Card of pain, guilt and people nursing their grudges and hurts so they can grow up as warped individuals, instead of forgiving and forgetting like any sensible person. So, nothing new there.

Essentially, Saints should be read by anyone who has read Card’s Alvin books. The American scenes are set around Illinois, mostly in Nauvoo, the city that Smith decreed the church should build on the banks of the Mississippi as the new Zion — a place free of pain, hunger, misery etc. The Alvin books are set in the same geographical area and, of course, Alvin’s great vision is to build the Crystal City — a place free of pain, hunger, misery etc. Smith and Alvin come from similar backgrounds, are misunderstood by their families, have visions and generally struggle against great odds to accomplish their dreams.

In my Vector article I said I couldn’t see the similarity between Alvin and Smith, but that was because there is so far no sign of Alvin starting a new church. In fact, he has no time at all for any kind of religion. However, since he is only 18 at the end of Prentice Alvin – – the age Smith was when he started on his life’s mission — perhaps we should wait and see. The main similarity between them, almost on a one-to-one basis, is the visions and new Zion theme that I’ve mentioned above.

The Mormons were chased out of Nauvoo before they could finish their temple there, so they headed out west across the Mississippi and settled in Utah. In the Alvin books, the area west of the Mississippi is always a kind of Promised Land — it is where Lolla-Wossiky leads his brother Reds to escape from white persecution in Red Prophet.

A key theme of Saints that hasn’t yet appeared in Alvin’s life, but which I mention because it’s so fascinating, is the Principle of Celestial Marriage, known to us gentiles as polygamy. This is plainly a topic that Card is struggling with. He is a happily married man and has no desire for more than one wife, yet he is also an honest man and has to face the fact that the founders of his church both espoused and practiced it until it was officially abandoned in 1890. It was, indeed, polygamy which so infuriated the gentile mobs around Nauvoo that Smith was murdered and the Mormons driven out of the United States (a historical footnote which Card doesn’t mention — despite the treatment that the US gave the Mormons, Utah Territory served the Union loyally during the Civil War twenty years later). Smith’s reason for it (in the book, anyway) is that it was practiced by the early patriarchs — Abraham, Jacob and that crowd — so that was how it was meant to be. A kind of theological back-to-basics. It was also a useful binding mechanism, since any plural wife who turned her back on the church was, by the standards of the rest of the world, at best an adulteress and at worst a whore and either way would get little protection. And yet, it was all so darn honourable — it certainly wasn’t the excuse for promiscuity and free love that the church’s enemies said it was. A man’s first wife got to veto all subsequent marriages; no member of a plural marriage could lord it over any other; and (according to Card) most plural marriages were entered into with quite a bit of reservation — they married not because they could but because the Prophet said they should. Arguing with someone with a hotline to God is always a non-starter. Smith himself apparently sat on the Principle for a good decade, before revealing it to a few chosen friends, because he didn’t particularly want to practice it and he knew full well what the rest of the world would say.

Saints is let down by its cover, which seems to promise a Cartlandesque frontier romance (“The powerful story of a dauntless woman whose life tested all of her strength!”), but at least it’s lost its original title (A Woman of Destiny). If anyone wants to get into the mind of Orson Scott Card (with something less solid than an axe) then I strongly recommend getting past the cover and reading the book. I don’t know if it’s actually published in the UK — my copy was published by Tor and came from Forbidden Planet.

Copyright © Ben Jeapes 1991. Not to be reproduced without permission, but feel free to link to it.