Mormon News, July 21–25

In the News

For Mormons and non-Mormons alike, thoughts of LDS pioneers conjure images of a sturdy father pulling a handcart while his wife (singular) and children trudge beside him. However, as two articles News Updatethis week demonstrate, handcarts were the least common way to cross the plains, and traveling over the Mormon pioneer trail was safer than previously imagined. Mel Bashore, of the LDS Church History Library and lead researcher of a study on pioneers, demonstrates that pioneer babies crossing the plains between 1847 and 1868 were more likely to survive than infants in the general U.S. population. Even for adults crossing the plains, the likelihood of death was barely higher than for adults in the broader population. LDS historians, in an article for the Salt Lake Tribune, also noted that when death did come, it was usually from disease, not Native Americans.

Where does the widespread belief in suffering of Mormon pioneers come from? It is likely a projection of the deaths at Winter Quarters and the tragedy of the Willie and Martin Handcart companies. Hundreds of Mormon evacuees from Nauvoo died near Omaha, Nebraska, and the Willie and Martin Handcart companies, due to a failure of leadership, famously set out across the plains too late and encountered devastating blizzards. To be sure, traveling to Utah was no picnic, but there were more immigrant deaths traveling by boat from New Orleans to St. Louis than by wagon from Independence to Salt Lake City.

These emerging details are creating a shift in Mormon narratives about pioneers, away from persecution and suffering to a celebration of LDS ingenuity, organization, and community. Non-Mormons in Utah are getting in on the celebration as well. Historically the Days of ‘47 in Utah has been a massive religious holiday, rivaling the celebration a few weeks earlier on the 4th of July. As Jennifer Dobner wrote for the New York Times, Utah’s “gentile” population has converted the festival to their own brand of “Pie ‘n Beer Day.” (The handcart imagery is so pervasive that even Dobner mistakenly wrote that Mormons arrived in 1847 with them! Handcarts were not adopted as a mode of travel until 1856.) The introduction of light alcohol is a way, historian Paul Reeve noted, of “making space” for oneself as a minority in a dominant culture.

In the past, the LDS Church has aggressively targeted those who violate LDS copyrights and even filed suit claiming it owns the name Mormon. However, the church is currently on the receiving end of a lawsuit after a Florida company accused them of going far beyond the scope of an original agreement to use the company’s audiobook recording of the Bible. According to Litchfield Associates, the church purchased the rights to reproduce the recording on an audio cassette but has since allowed access to it through other media, including as a free download on the internet, none of which was agreed to in the original contract. The church has not yet responded to the lawsuit.

In Books

We are pleased at Signature to have just published Linda Sillitoe’s final novel, Thieves of Summer, which she wrote prior to her death in 2010. It is available in paperback and on Kindle. Set in Salt Lake City during the Great Depression, it involves missing lingerie from ZCMI, an elephant at Liberty Park that goes on a rampage, and most ominously children vanishing. We hope you are as moved by it as we are. Linda’s daughter Cynthia, who helped give the manuscript a final polishing, and husband (widower) John, will be featured at a special reception in conjunction with Sunstone Symposium on Friday, Aug. 1, at 12:30 in the ballroom of the Olpin Student Center at the University of Utah, including food, music, and miniature elephants on parade.

News update by John Hatch, acquisitions editor