by Levi S. Peterson
Micah Clegg, Illustrator
Hardback / 440 pages / 1-56085-003-5 / $31.95
BEST NOVEL AWARD
ASSOCIATION FOR MORMON LETTERS
Recognized as a Mormon classic twenty years after its release,The Backslider features longstanding Christian conflicts played out in a scenic, sparsely populated area of southern Utah. A young ranch-hand, Frank Windham, conceives of God as an implacable enemy of human appetite. He is a dedicated sinner until family tragedy catapults him into an arcane form of penitence preached among frontier Mormons. He is saved by an epiphany that has proved controversial among readers, either interpreting it as an extreme impiety or celebrating it as a moving and entirely plausible rendering of a biblical theme in a Western setting.
Frank comes into contact with a host of rural and urban characters. Of central importance is his Lutheran girlfriend, Marianne, whom Frank seduces, begrudgingly marries, and eventually loves. Frank’s extended family is just a generation removed from polygamy and still energized by old-time grudges and deprivations. Along the way Frank encounters a closeted secular humanist, a polygamist prophet, a psychiatrist, a Mason, government employees, college professors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs—all drawn with heightened realism reminiscent of Charles Dickens or the grotesque forms of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.
The story engages readers as it alternates almost imperceptibly between Frank’s naïve consciousness and the more informed awareness of its narrator. It can be read as a love story, a satiric comedy, or a dark and sobering study of self-mutilation. Shifting from one to another, it builds suspense and elicits
complex emotions, among them a profound sense of compassion. More joyous than cynical, it sympathizes deeply with the plight of all of God’s backsliders.
From the jacket flap
Even before he began to write, Levi S. Peterson “knew that Mormons would be my subject matter. I was an instinctive realist. I wanted to write about people as they really are, and Mormons were the only people I knew from inside out. Moreover, the conflicts I wanted to write about were between belief and disbelief and between sexual impulse and conscience. I found those conflicts in myself, and I detected them among people I knew. So it wasn’t hard to attribute them to fictional Mormons.”
The title story of Peterson’s first collection of short stories, The Canyons of Grace, featured a young woman who defies God and then symbolically kills him. His story “Trinity” centered on two guilt-hobbled Mormon missionaries who accidentally meet in front of a painting in the Louvre in Paris.
From this beginning, Peterson earned a reputation for portraying Mormons in sin and turmoil, perhaps most memorably represented in his landmark first novel, The Backslider, and also in Aspen Marooney (a novel) and Night Soil (short stories).
Equally noteworthy have been his public readings, where he has entertained audiences with an unforgettable rural accent—a vestige, he says, of having grown up on Route 66 in Arizona. Over three decades, his voice has carried far and wide to touch many hearts and minds. “There’s a health in confronting reality,” he suggests. “It’s all a matter of balance and proportion. When disbelief, sex, and violence are given their due, as a measured part of life, they educate rather than injure a reader.” They can also inspire readers who find the acknowledgment of human frailty to be an essential part of compassion and personal achievement.
About the author
“Born in 1933, I was raised in Snowflake, a small Mormon town in northern Arizona. The isolated town gave me an intrigue with Mormon villages wherever I find them. Being on the edge of a vast range-land, the town also gave me an enduring taste for wilderness, as well as the ultimately untenable assumption that the civilized and the wild are compatible.
“I was the last of thirteen children in a composite family, my father having had six previous children and my mother two. My father died when I was nine, so my mother, an intensely religious person, was the chief influence of my childhood. I felt guilt and grief over leaving her alone when I went away to college—a regret from which I suffer even now. I interrupted my studies to serve a French-speaking mission in Switzerland and Belgium, then returned to complete a doctorate at the University of Utah in 1965, which is when I joined the faculty of Weber State University.
“In 1958 I married Althea Sand, a non-Mormon. We have a daughter who lives presently in the Puget Sound area with her family. In retirement, we have followed her to the Pacific Northwest and now spend a good deal of time with our grandchildren.
“Although I aspired to write fiction from my earliest college years, I postponed my endeavor until I had turned forty in the 1970s. I then settled into serious writing, producing two collections of short stories, two novels, a biography, and an autobiography. I do not regret my late start. At forty, I had something to say and a better idea of how to say it. I became active on the liberal Mormon circuit, writing essays and delivering speeches aimed at liberalizing my church. Currently I serve as editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.”
About the illustrator
Micah Clegg recently graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Art degree from Brigham Young University Idaho. This is his second illustration project, and he wants to continue to illustrate stories he finds engaging and inspiring. He and his wife, Emily, and two daughters live in southeastern Idaho.