I recently read two memoirs about Mormon women in their early twenties who live radically different lives bound only by the strong religious beliefs. Heaven Is Here by Stephanie Nielson chronicles the life of a Mormon housewife whose idyllic life with her four children and temple-wed husband takes a painful detour when she and her husband suffer severe burns and require months of therapy before leaving the hospital. Thousands of miles away, Elna Baker's memoir The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance describes her life trying to start a career as an actress in New York but wondering whether being a Mormon actually precludes marriage or possibly would make any marriage she undertook intolerable.
I'm someone who doesn't stay close to my childhood religion; my children aren't baptised as Roman Catholics, I don't attend church regularly, and I think the Pope is frequently wrong. But I know many people who draw great strength and kindness from their devotion, so I don't think religious people are foolish, let alone alien, bigoted and cloistered. But I'm interested in how people can put their trust in powerful religious structures such as the Mormon Church, and especially how women find peace with the expectations laid out for them. These two books show women facing radically different challenges but still staying within the strictures of their church, although Nielson feels much more comfortable there than Baker does.
Nielson marries the man her prayers tell her is for her, and skips college to start raising their family together. The accident sidelines them for a while, as they have to relearn how to survive before they can care for their children again. Their families rally around them and prayer helps cement them to each other and to their chosen life, which they slowly reclaim. Her memoir consistently refers to the comfort and strength Mormonism gives her, and how powerful she finds the prophecies and blessings made for her. In contrast, Baker finds her prayers rejected -- even the man she feels God has chosen for her gets away (and she's actually a bit relieved), and the man she thinks she loves has the fatal flaw of not being Mormon. Her life has many more temptations -- she lives in New York, trying to date and still stay pure, but more often finding that what she thought was true doesn't match up to what she sees and does, and that the promises of her blessings don't pan out. Yet the warmth and love of her family pull her back to the Mormon church. It's clear that to both these women the building block of their religion is a traditional family, and without that, Baker finds the foundations less stable, yet her sense of self pulls her away from Mormonism.
Neither story is complete yet, although Baker is on a path of greater changes and conflicts. Both were written with a strong sense of the author's personality, strengths and flaws. I received Heaven is Here as an ARC from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program, while somehow Baker's book appeared on my TBR list in 2010. I really need to start giving myself notes about why I'm putting books there...