“Riding in the Shadows of Saints–
A Woman’s Story of
Motorcycling the Mormon Trail,”
(Crown Publishers, New York, 2005).
AN ASIDE: It not unusual, when I let an author know I posted a review, for that person to send a thank you note. What is usual is for it to be thoughtful, like this one (posted with permission):
She was raised in a house with a religious (Mormon) mother and a father who had pretended to be Mormon until her mother became his wife and then turned against that faith. This caused some confusion in Jana's understanding of Mormonism in terms of its details, and she shows this in her descriptions of her youthful faith which betrays an innocent mixture of Mormon and Catholic concepts. But hers is not a theological treatise, so it does not matter.
She caught on to religious (and societal) patriarchy and noted its limiting effect on women’s self-image and self-expectations as a youngster. She never did become a deeply believing Mormon in part because of her sensing this aspect of the church/belief structure was both dominant and harmful.
She turned anti-Mormon for a while and then settled down to being a neutral observer and occasionally even a defender of the faith against the really ignorant claims made by some detractors. I have found myself doing similar things, to my surprise, even in my angry phase.
This motorbike ride was a confrontation with her mother’s and grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ faith. She came to understand and feel what they felt, by standing where they toiled across the plains bleeding, underfed and half-frozen (some lost extremities to frostbite, so half-frozen is an understatement). But that did not give her their faith. Instead she came to realize she has her own faith (meaning her own life-motivation) and it is not at its heart really dissimilar from theirs.
She tells historical tales with accuracy and great compassion, but not in detail. She recommends other books for those seeking historical treatment of the background incidents she uses to illustrate her subject.
At the end she acknowledges that Mormon women are generally happy, and are engaged in doing good to an extent quite unusual for the larger and very self-centered society of which it is a part. Yet she sees that she cannot and should not try to will herself to be a believing part of that society.
I really liked her treatment of the meaning of faith and of life and its purpose. And I loved the way she explained what to her is the nature of God! In 2005 a discussion with a Mormon caused me to re-examine my beliefs and restate them. It was very shortly after that (Christmas) that I ran across Jana's book which reinforced my own feelings. In 2003-2004 I read about 30 books to find out what humanity actually knew of life and God. I decided after all that reading to stick with what my inner feelings seemed to indicate on the subject.
In my self-promoting opinion, Jana came to exactly the same conclusion about what God is as I did, a very inexact description but anything more would be uncomfortable. She states her belief without attempting to convey it as something the reader ought to buy into. It is based on interpreting her own feelings in light of her experience, and in the light of what she deeply felt to be basic truths.
Her common-sense approach to establishing her belief is easy to follow to its conclusions. Her arguments are made only to herself, are relaxed, heartfelt, transparent, and credible.
Part of her coming to be the person she now is involves understanding and accepting her mother's life as a valuable life. I was quite touched by her description of her mother's 'coming into her own' so to speak after many years of suffering quietly over her religion not being respected or even tolerated at home.
She put her foot down at one point, claiming her inalienable right to act and to believe as dictated by her own conscience, and blossomed into, of all things, a newfound life of freedom in a patriarchally defined and, to some (like her daughter Jana), constrained life.
This was quite mystifying to Jana, but she learned from it, and in a way a big part of this book's tale is the tale of her reconciliation with the idea that her mother was, after her self-liberation, living a rewarding and valuable life, in the same giving and accepting spirit of her pioneer ancestors.
Her mother, as others do, thrive in Mormondom because they have learned to fully fill the life-space given them with what to them is meaningful and constructive activity and work, and that is no mean accomplishment! In terms of being a positive influence on the world (as measured by giving hope and courage and support to individuals), some of them do more ‘good’ in a year than most people do in a lifetime. Most people in our larger society, whether men, or women who live unconstrained by a patriarchal framework hovering over them as if to make sure they don't fly, will do good things for others on an occasional basis, but they do not make this their way of life.
And so I find myself exactly where Jana is, having arrived in a similar place in a broadly similar fashion. My state of belief was deeper than hers for some decades, in my judgment, but my roots were not as deep (I was an adult convert). When I became disillusioned and lost faith I felt abandoned by the universe and turned angry for some time. Then I slowly came to realize what Jana came to realize more rapidly because of the depth of her roots: most Mormons are quite happy, and they construct a model cooperative and caring society wherever they go. These are very positive and good things, and unusual in our age, whatever one may think of their beliefs.
They (Mormons) deserve the same respect that anyone’s belief system does (a two-way street of course). But for those who were once, but are not any longer, Mormon believers, and who are not likely to ever put on the garments of belief’s self-illusion again, it is really a sad thing to recognize the reality of the warmth and comfort of that society, knowing one will never be a really integral part of that society again.
After separation from this society, anger may flare for a time. It is not unusual. But then most mature to the point where we can and do love our Mormon neighbors, friends and relatives, and can respect their beliefs without even thinking of attacking them. We can derive genuine pleasure from being in their company. Those notions I see clearly expressed in Jana’s powerful and very personal story. In fact, at the end she is moving to Utah to be by her mother and, not really coincidentally, in the midst of Mormon society.
By the way, Jana is an excellent writer in terms of descriptive narrative. She has a very smooth and lucid style.
It is an easy read, in terms of the mind. But her story bypasses your mind and reaches deeply in to pluck at your heartstrings and make a sad music in your bowels at times. I found it an emotional read, seeing myself reflected in her feelings and experiences multiple times.
Is she perfect in this story? No, several times she acted and thought in ways slightly alien to my own way of being and thinking. But that is what makes the story so compelling, she tells it from within herself, pulling no punches to avoid occasionally saying or doing what others may not fully approve of.
In my opinion, it would a be a strange person who, after reading this book, would not be filled with empathy, respect and even love for this woman. I know I felt all three throughout the book. [Love in the compassion or caritas sense, of course. After all, she is the same age as my oldest daughter!]
It is a courageous piece of self-baring writing. And I bet her honesty with and about herself will resonate with many, even if their own inner make-up and resultant beliefs are quite different from hers.
I recommend this book, whether you have a Mormon root or not. It is an interesting source of insight into our common humanity in addition to being a story of one person’s journey to gaining a profound enhancement to her (already considerable) spiritual depth and maturity.
PS: I have already linked to some snippets of my own falling-away-from-faith story, but the main tale was written while on the waning edges of my own angry state, and is at: http://www.thoughtsandplaces.org/WIZZF.HTML
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