Orson Scott Card’s Saints is an unusual book – written by a devoutly religious author about devoutly religious people, but never coming across to me as inspirational fiction. While it wasn’t a perfect read, I not only enjoyed it but actually teared up once or twice.
The story is a sprawling historical epic which begins in Manchester in 1829, when the ne’er-do-well father of ten-year-old Dinah Kirkham abandons his family – Dinah, her two brothers, and her mother, who’s pregnant. Plunged into grinding poverty, the family struggles to survive. Dinah, who’s working in a factory by the time she’s sixteen, learns stoicism early. Yet in her narrow world, there is no outlet for her intelligence, nor room for a woman’s independence, and her family soon has her married off to a controlling, occasionally violent man who has nothing in common with her.
Dinah longs for something more, some greater purpose to her life. And it’s then that she hears a Mormon missionary preaching about Joseph Smith, a man who received a divine revelation and is now building the city of God on the banks of the Mississippi River. Both Dinah and her younger brother listen and find this compelling enough to attend meetings of the Saints, as the Mormons call themselves. There, Dinah discovers she has the gift of prophecy, and now she’s determined to travel to the New World and be part of building God’s city. Even if it means confronting her husband, even if it means a nightmarish ocean crossing, and even if it means that Joseph Smith – who’s already married – is convinced that God has given her to him as his wife.
One reason I didn’t feel this novel was an inspirational was because the Mormon faith wasn’t even mentioned until page 189, though after that it’s writ large with regards to polygamy. The book presents a well-written but idealized version of that. There are no sixtyish men forcing teenagers into marriage, and the relationships between the wives are as important as the marriages. I especially liked the empathic conversation Dinah has with a woman who’s just discovered her husband will take another wife. That wife is the woman’s older sister, who has her own fears and hopes and longing. And yes, it all works out eventually.
“If we live through this and love each other at the end, no one can say we don’t deserve to be called saints.”
However, even in this perfectly polygamous society, it’s clear that while some wives are Rachel, others are Leah. And while there’s lip service paid to the idea of no competition between the wives, when a plural wife asks Dinah for a blessing, Dinah replies, “The Lord will give you more children than any of your husband’s other wives.” Uh-huh. Sounds competitive to me.
Although Dinah is at first very resistant to the idea of becoming Joseph Smith’s wife, she eventually falls in love with him. Like him, she’s strong, devoted to her faith, and a leader in their community. She writes poetry and is never at a loss for witty comebacks. For instance, after she’s spoken to another woman about how to make the best of plural marriage, the woman says, “I still hate the thought of it, but I think that I can do it… Maybe I won’t even be angry at the Lord.”
“He’ll return the favor at the last day,” says Dinah.
I enjoyed reading about her, but Joseph Smith was more problematic. His secretly cheating on his first wife Emma, who has already endured a great deal, is difficult to accept. He believes that God will punish him if he doesn’t marry multiple women. Well, sorry, but it’s still cheating, and I ended up sympathizing with Emma. She didn’t sign up for a marriage where she had to share her husband, and deceiving someone for (what you believe are) the right reasons doesn’t make it less wrong.
The story follows historical events closely, so it wasn’t a surprise that Dinah becomes a widow before her time. She doesn’t receive divine favor or even happiness for being a believer, and she loses all her children in devastating ways (potential trigger warnings). Ultimately, as the book points out, her tragedy is that she longed for love, but had to settle for power, fame and adulation. But to me, that was one of the things that made her so memorable as a heroine.
Finally, I liked the fact that Dinah’s older brother, an atheist and therefore one of the de facto villains of the story, is intelligent, works hard and ends up rich, successful, and happily married. Verily, the wicked flourish as the green bay tree.
While I don’t read Orson Scott Card’s newer works, Saints is an example of his writing at its best. With a fascinating heroine, a strong supporting cast and plenty of lively dialogue, it’s the kind of story that can be enjoyed no matter what you believe in. It earns a solid recommendation.