reviews – Vernal Promises

Joshua Foster, a sophomore from Rigby, Idaho, enjoys Jack Harrell's new novel in the BYU-I bookstore. Photo by Janessa Higginbotham, The ScrollMormon Library, Jeff Needle
In the biblical tale of Job, this poor guy, who did everything he could to fulfill his duties as father and priest of the family, is dragged through his own personal hell until he finally meets God, and through God his own humanity, face to face. It’s a rough story, a tale of a man who loses everything and finds little comfort in the presence of his friends.

In an odd way, Vernal Promises comes close to being a modern-day Job tale, a parable of religious excess and radical human weakness. It is a chilling, thoroughly engrossing reading, with one of the most engaging protagonists I’ve come across in a long time.

Jacob and Pam Dennison are not your normal Mormon couple. Having met and married within the span of just a few weeks, they plunged into their relationship from the perspective of flawed childhoods and dysfunctional families. In Jacob’s case, his mother had cycled through a series of husbands, one of whom is an unsavory machine bit salesman, disreputable and cynical, a thoroughly bad influence in Jacob’s life. Lacking any real role models, Jacob and Pam get off to a bad start. Together they decide to return to the church, hoping that their renewed commitment to the gospel will set them on a straight path.

When Pam miscarries their first child, Jacob is sent into an emotional spin that loses him his job at the local supermarket. In need of money, Jacob goes to work for his step-father Harvey, the above-named machine bit salesman, and begins delivering machine parts, some of which are stolen. It is on one such delivery that Jacob becomes immersed in a world of drugs, alcohol, and sexual excess. He meets Amy and finds a willing sexual partner. Worse, he meets an ex-con named Mickey Rickles and his mystic-magician friend, Dwayne Helper, to whose company he abandons his wife and his life in Vernal for a new career involving oil rigging and lots of beer, lots of pot, and lots of trouble.

The author sets us on a rocky course at the outset when he has Jacob asking the question that sets the tone for the rest of the book: “If God wanted obedience, Jacob wondered, why did he make sin so sweet?” (p. 27). And as if Harrell wanted this thought bookended in the story, we find this near the end of the book: “All he had ever wanted was to stick to what was true. The problem was, the truth didn’t make things any easier” (p. 290).

Jacob, given the middle name Israel, travels a tortured path of self-discovery and ongoing revulsion. Nothing he does brings him the peace, the satisfaction, that each of his influences promised. For Jacob, the church becomes just another drug, one that promises him tranquility, but delivers only emptiness:

“Israel.” The name was burdensome. “Israel, Israel, God is calling.” “Woe is Israel!” The House of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years, blind and complaining, proving that God didn’t give a damn about who they were. He only cared about what he could make of them. Jacob looked at his eyes, a darkly lined dapple of brown and hazel and gray. He felt his own emptiness like it was a revelation. The wandering Israelites had faced the wilderness for a mere forty years, bounded on all sides by earth and sky, but the wilderness inside a man’s soul was endless and eternal because the soul was endless and eternal. “Who are you?” eternity asked. Jacob couldn’t answer (pp. 123-4).

Midway through the book, Jacob and Dwayne (the mystic) engage in one of the most powerful and riveting dialogues I’ve ever read. The energy, the bluntness, the honesty of the exchange is reminiscent of that stunning, closing, three-way conversation in Margaret Young’s “Salvador,” where all pretense is stripped away and good and evil emerge as powerful forces. Harrell adds a new layer, one of complete confusion of gospel and evil, turning common sense on its head, one that brings us no closer to the “truth” that Jacob so badly wants as his own as the personification of evil usurps the position always claimed by God.

This discussion provides one of the several clear turning points in the story, and perhaps in our own understanding of the gospel. Read carefully, the reader will find so many fundamental issues discussed—agency, grace, good vs. evil—but in a way that is foreign to the reader and difficult to work through. Finally, one emerges from the discussion with a renewed sense of the struggle, the violence inherent in any spiritual struggle.

The more we learn about Jacob, the more we view his character as an addictive personality. He needs to be mainlining something—and it can either be religion or drugs. Pages 298-99 have Pam, his wife, wondering about Jacob—all the time he spends reading the scriptures, underlining in various colors, studying, praying, etc. One is reminded of Job and his passion for sacrifice (see Job 1:8).

When he (Jacob) falls from grace, he falls big. Pot and cocaine are just the beginning. LSD becomes part of his experience, a time when he thinks he has clarified his life’s path, but it is only muddied. He is, after all, a Mormon, and to return home, which he must do, he is returning to Mormonism. Can he make Mormonism his new addiction? Can he drag himself out of the pit he’s in and return to the life he wants?

The book closes with a horrifying vision of what can happen when religion and God become your drugs of choice. This is no facile tale of happily ever after. Life isn’t neat; neither is this book. Life is confused, sometimes violent, always challenging. Jacob lives this kind of life.

Harrell knows how to write dialogue. He’s very good. He’s equally good at developing character. Each of the players is fleshed out and given a face that is unforgettable. He keeps the narrative moving; the story simply never lags. I read this book in two sittings.

If there is a moral to this story, it is, as stated, that life is filled with hard questions and simple, or rather simplistic, answers just don’t work. A well-intentioned bishop (and who figures prominently in this story, and I grew to admire the man) can only go so far. In the end, each of us must look deeply into our souls and decide what direction our lives will take. And if, as did Jacob, you begin in an unstable environment, your task is all the more difficult.

Vernal Promises is a cautionary tale about the addictive nature of religion and righteousness, about the cultic aspects of personal piety and the failure of organized caring. Deeply personal and deeply felt, this book is, in my view, a triumph in the world of Mormon publishing. I highly recommend this book, and anxiously look forward to more from this fine author. I thank Signature for bringing us this title.

Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Todd Robert Petersen
“Good News for Fiction Readers” BYU-I English Professor Turns Author

Jack Harrell, Author of Novel ‘Vernal Promises’
by Janae Hollenback, BYU-I Scroll
October 14, 2003

REXBURG — It took ten years for BYU-Idaho English professor Jack Harrell to be satisfied with the resulting product of his first novel. Finally, after several drafts and revisions, Harrell found his work “worth a reader’s time.” The book, Vernal Promises, was published by Signature Books and released September 15.

The unfinished manuscript had already received recognition from the Association for Mormon Letters in 2000 with the Marilyn Brown Novel Award.

Vernal Promises revolves around the lives of a married couple, Jacob and Pam, living in Vernal, Utah.

“I had a character in mind, and my number one goal in writing this novel was to tell his story, truthfully and honestly,” Harrell said of his character Jacob. “I think for real artists, their motive is not necessarily to get a message across but to tell a story.”

Vernal Promises is a story about redemption, Harrell said. “This person goes through difficult things, and the means by which he comes out of it is through the Savior,” he said. “But Jacob has this sort of backwards reverence. He doesn’t think he’s worth it. He thinks, ‘if anybody should be a garbage can for all this misery, it should be me.’ If we don’t connect ourselves to the Savior’s suffering, we’re lost.”

“In an odd way, Vernal Promises comes close to being a modern-day tale of Job, a parable of religious excess and radical human weakness,” Jeff Needle of Mormon Library said in his review of the novel. “It is a chilling, thoroughly engrossing read, with one of the most engaging protagonists I’ve come across in a long time.”

Harrell mentions with caution that “it’s not a book for everyone.” While the novel is aimed at LDS readers, the issues that it deals with—drug addiction, sex, dysfunctional families, crime, etc.—are often avoided in other LDS works.

“Readers might expect the novel to be warm and fuzzy, but it’s far more challenging than that,” English faculty member Matthew Babcock, who read the unfinished manuscript, said.

The story is based on struggles Harrell had witnessed in his own life and in the lives of others. The basic setting of the novel comes from his personal experience, but most events and people are fictional, he said.

“I admire the way Jack is able to incorporate his personal life and religious beliefs into his creative works,” Babcock said.

“Writing is a process, not a product,” Harrell said. “The plot is the knot I’m trying to untangle. I’m almost sad when it’s solved.”

As soon as he finished Vernal Promises, Harrell said, he began work immediately on another novel—this one about an Idaho state park ranger. “Now I’m busily engrossed in untangling his story,” he said.

Rexburg Teacher Writes Novel, ‘Vernal Promises”
The Vernal Express
October 8, 2003

VERNAL, UT — In February 1981, Jack Harrell moved to Vernal from Illinois, following his brother who moved west to work in the oil business.

His years in Vernal had a lasting effect on him and is the basis for his book, Vernal Promises, released Sept. 15 by Signature Books.

The unpublished manuscript received the Marilyn Brown Novel Award in 2000 from the Association of Mormon Letters.

While Harrell lived in Vernal, he worked in several grocery stores and for an oil field equipment sales company. Eighteen months after joining the LDS church, he left for a mission to Charlotte, N. C.

“Even though the people in my ward barely knew me, they paid the majority of my mission expenses,” he said. “To this day, I still don’t know who the people were who made those contributions.”

Three months after his mission, he married Cindy Hunsaker, a first-grade teacher at Maeser Elementary.

“In 1992, in a creative writing class at Brigham Young University, I got the idea for a novel about a troubled young man living in Vernal, Utah,” he said. “As I continued to work on the book, I realized that Vernal’s small-town setting and the natural environment of the high plains desert were perfect for the kind of spiritual struggle I was trying to portray. There’s something about a fight for faith in the wilderness that reaches back to ancient times and resonates with us still.”

In 1995 he was hired at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho), where he started working on the novel again. He completed a 200-page draft, threw out 75 percent, and started over. The second draft was 300 pages long. He submitted a third draft to the Marilyn Brown Unpublished Novel contest and won first prize, $1,000.

The novel tells the story of Jacob Dennison and his wife Pam. It begins with Pam’s miscarriage, an incident that triggers Pam’s re-introduction to the LDS church. It carries the couple through their struggle to find financial, spiritual, and marital balance. In the course of the novel, Jacob works in a Vernal grocery store, he works for his father selling oil field equipment, and he works for a few months in Rock Springs as a roughneck on a workover rig.

The novel deals with Mormon characters, but it’s not a story of cheap grace or easy solutions. Jacob and Pam face some serious problems in their marriage—with Jacob’s drug and alcohol abuse, his infidelity, and his fight with his merciless perception of God.

If there is a moral to the story, it is that life is filled with hard questions, and simple, or rather simplistic, answers just don’t work.

Harrell has previously published short stories. His work has appeared in Dialogue, Irreantum, and Manna. He lives in Rexburg with his wife, Cindy, and their children.

Rexburg Author, Teacher Releases First Novel
by Bonnie Barlow, Standard Journal
September 29, 2003

REXBURG, ID — Jack Harrell’s hard work has just paid off. After numerous drafts written over the space of ten years, his first novel, Vernal Promises, is finally in print.

The book was released on Sept. 15 by Signature Books, but the accolades for his efforts began before the novel hit the book stands.

The unpublished manuscript received the Marilyn Brown Novel Award in 2000 from the Association for Mormon Letters.

“This is a brilliant novel, written with language that crackles,” says Marilyn Brown, author of The Wine Dark Sea of Grass. “The relationships are treated with force and poignancy. The power of the story is its authenticity and the character’s compelling conversion.”

After winning the award, Harrell was approached by Signature Books. “We look for books that come above the horizon—unknown authors with quality work that needs to be published,” says Harrell’s publicist, Tom Kimball. He says Vernal Promises fell into this category. “This book is first rate.”

Harrell refers to his work as a redemption story. The initial ideas for the work came from struggles that he had seen in his own life and in the lives of others.

The writing process began some ten years ago while Harrell was in an undergraduate English class at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Over the course of the term, he produced the first 100 pages. His work on the project stopped while he was in graduate school.

Harrell picked the project up again and added an additional 100 pages to the manuscript. “I was really writing blind on the first draft,” he says. He took those initial 200 pages, did a 75 percent cut, and basically started over. He retained the characters and some of their emotional struggles, but the setting and events changed.

As he approached a second draft, he chose to tell the story from multiple perspectives. Harrell says that as he reworked the manuscript, he grew to know the characters better. To write a character, an author must know what the person would do if someone took his parking space, he says.

“Harrell is good at developing character, each of the players is fleshed out and given a face that is unforgettable,” Jeff Needle of Mormon Library said in a recent review of Vernal Promises.

Harrell says that while the book is geared toward the LDS community, he wanted to address real-life issues that are often skirted by popular LDS fiction.

“We are comfortable writing for children and teenagers,” he says. “But we need to talk more about the adult who needs redemption and change.” He wanted his book to address the complications that adults face without sugar-coating the story.

“If there is a moral to the story, it is, as stated, that life is filled with hard questions, and simple, or rather simplistic, answers just don’t work,” Needle says.

Harrell has previously published short stories. His work has appeared in Dialogue, Irreantum, and Manna. He lives in Rexburg with his wife Cindy and their children.