“I was surprised to discover that I have fallen in love with Laman, the sinner who is still looking for redemption.” Mette Ivie Harrison (October 2014)
Last Monday the fledgling publisher BCC Press released three new books. I had the privilege of receiving a copy of one of these, The Book of Laman by Mette Harrison, to review.
First off, I have to give props to the cover design. The dark blue softcover and gold-lettering purposefully calls to mind the Book of Mormon copies missionaries eagerly pass out every day. Were the book a little smaller, it’d fit perfectly with those piles shoved in black backpacks worldwide.
The concept of writing the first part of the Book of Mormon from the point of view of reknowned murmurers Laman or Lemuel isn’t new. Google “Book of Laman” and you’ll find humorous takes on various discussion threads and blog posts. Even at By Common Consent, the blog behind BCC Press, you can find a tongue-in-cheek account of Kevin Barney stumbling on Laman’s gold plates in an old Guatemalan tourist trap. One of the more popular books on the matter is The Lost Plates of Laman by Bob Lewis, which Michael Austin mentions in his foreward to Mette Harrison’s novel. Austin notes that Harrison’s book is a refreshing departure from common two-dimensional tropes.
Nephi is sometimes an annoying brat, but he is also a real prophet who sees and speaks for the Lord. Laman is neither a comic book villain nor a long-suffering ironist. He is a flawed human being struggling to live well and usually coming up short. And in some of the book’s very best scenes, he is touched unexpectedly by grace and God. (p. viii)
I think bloggernacle readers will be familiar with the psychology Harrison infused in Laman. Mette Harrison had a faith crisis following the stillbirth of a child, and Laman’s difficult relationship with God also stems from family trauma. In Laman’s case, it’s because of a deadbeat father who abandoned his family for six years.
Harrison’s Lehi is an absentee father, an unemployed wandering drunkard who has little going for him beyond the ability to tell fanciful stories. (I couldn’t help but wonder if this Lehi was an exaggerated version of Joseph Smith, Sr.) Laman watches his mother, Sariah, struggle to make ends meet. Her seemingly unanswered prayers every night convince Laman that if God exists, He surely doesn’t care about them.
It is understandable, then, why Laman is skeptical when Lehi returns to the family, ostensibly at God’s command. Lehi claims he has turned over a new leaf. With the birth of two more sons, Sam and Nephi, Lehi sets out to be the doting father he never was to Laman or Lemuel. All Sam and Nephi see is a wonderful husband and father, a great man who is blessed by God with visions and a great mission, but Laman (as he sees it) knows the truth. Although Laman eventually comes to accept his father as a prophet, he is often plagued with nagging doubts.
Harrison chose to use modern language to tell Laman’s story, and the simple narrative reads like young adult fiction. A few times Lehi or Nephi will lapse into prophetic scriptural voice, tripping up the flow. Between the fist bumps and Magic 8-ball Liahona insinuations, though, are fairly mature religious struggles.
When Lehi shares his vision of the Tree of Life, Laman recognizes his questions afterwards are quite different from Nephi’s.
I would have asked why some people held onto the rod and some people wandered away. Why did some people care about the fruit and others didn’t? I mean, if it was really the most delicious thing in the world, you’d think everyone would be mobbing the tree or planting new ones or something? (p. 142)
He remarks on the difficulty of following unusual divine commands.
I was trying to follow God, but it was too hard sometimes. God asked us to do crazy things and Father and Nephi did them gladly. Then Lemuel and I got in trouble for being rational and asking questions about how this was really going to work. (p. 142-143)
Laman begins to think he might have a place in God’s plan after all, even if he isn’t the model disciple:
God needed prophets and leaders. But perhaps He needed me and Lemuel, as well. The weak-minded, the easily frightened, the doubting. We were His children, even if we didn’t always want to be. (p. 109)
And Laman deals with the struggle of following God’s chosen leaders, even when one doesn’t particularly like them.
I had to put aside my feelings for Nephi and listen to God through him. (p. 143)
I also found fascinating the tension in the family lives of righteous versus less righteous brothers. Nephi’s near obsession with various divinely-directed projects impacts his wife and children. Laman is more present as a father, a priority explained by his childhood experiences. It made me think about the various obligations of parents in church service, and the toll those sometimes extensive duties away from home exact on family members.
Harrison varies at times from the details in the Book of Mormon. Some were necessary and welcome, like the larger roles of Laman and Nephi’s wives, Naomi and Rachel. Some I felt were unnecessary and disappointing, like eliminating Laman’s lead role in the first visit to Laban for the brass plates. Zoram was essentially nonexistent after he joined up with Lehi’s family in the wilderness. (A minor point I only noticed when Harrison singled out the oldest daughter of Ishmael as a less desirable option for a wife in the eyes of Laman’s younger brothers. Laman was smitten, and I wondered how it would resolve since Ishmael’s oldest daughter went to Zoram in the scriptures.) Most of the time, though, Harrison offers a refreshing, entertaining counter-perspective to Nephi’s tale.
Overall, I find the strength of the book in Harrison weaving into Laman’s story the difficult questions many believers ask in the course of their faith journeys.
Mette Harrison’s The Book of Laman is available in paperback and Kindle versions. BCC Press is offering a 20% discount this week to all their publications to date if ordered via the Create Space website. See this post at By Common Consent for details.
- Which of Lehi & Sariah’s kids do you relate to? Has it changed over the years?
- Do you have a favorite parody or novel based on the Book of Mormon?
- If you’ve read any of the BCC Press books, which is your favorite thus far?
Is this a modern adaption (Magic 8ball) or more of a try at an ancient narrative? I understand the language is modern, but is it like putting Bill & Ted back in history, or does it try to be more historical?
I haven’t read the book, but it seems difficult to reconcile Lehi as a wandering drunkard and Sariah struggling to make ends meet, and the brothers bringing a great deal of wealth to Laban to get the plates, but I’m sure there’s something there to resolve that.
MH, she never says Magic 8-ball, Laman just wonders if they shook up the Liahona whether they’d get another response (and I chuckled). It’s not Bill & Ted level, but it’s also not aiming to be strong historical fiction. The emphasis is more on relationships (between family members or with God). The anachronistic humor is part and parcel of this genre (a la “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead”).
Martin, she glosses over details, but you’re supposed to accept that Lehi becomes successful once he cleans up.
For anyone who’d like, there’s an older version of the first chapter that Mette posted on her website a few years ago. It gives you a better feel for the style: http://www.metteivieharrison.com/newsletter.html
The Lamanites had a different narrative from that of Nephi also.
I just finished Third Wheel and loved it. I’m a few chapters into The Burning Point and it is also excellent. I’m going to tackle The Book of Laman next. Thanks for the review.