I recently finished reading Mette Harrison’s new novel, The Book of Laman, from BCC Press. This book was previously reviewed by Mary Ann here. You can read my other short reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.
Laman finally gets his say in this tongue-in-cheek (yet not comedic) revisiting of the Book of Mormon from its most understood character. The family dynamics of this dynastic lot of outcasts is familiar yet hidden in the original. Harrison invests in a backstory that parallels Joseph Smith’s own familial background (although JS is in the Nephi role in this story). She also uses the story to pose questions about modern Mormonism, how the divine is perceived when one is a doubter, and the role of upbringing and life experience in one’s perceptions of spiritual matters. It’s a distinctly modern reading of Laman’s experience, but with lots of things to think about.
The book’s not perfect. Like Mette’s other books, it’s young adult fiction and reads like it. It’s only one possible narrative, so you might not like her choices. As another reviewer put it, Laman’s worst faults (domestic violence against his brother) might be glossed over a bit here or not taken as seriously as they ought from a psychological standpoint. And yet . . .
If you haven’t read it, I recommend it at only $6.95 on Kindle. Here are the top reasons you should buy and read this book:
- Understanding family dynamics. How did a family with the same parents produce both Nephi and Laman? Why would those parents favor a younger son in a culture based on primogeniture (and for once, let’s hear from someone other than the favored son)?
- Women exist in this version, and they even have *gasp* names and personalities. The fact that women are nearly invisible to Nephi doesn’t escape the notice of the female readers as often as it does the male readers. What kind of woman would Laman like vs. what kind of woman would Nephi like? Well, all you have to do is look around your ward to answer this question. Fist bump to Mette.
- It’s a more human story. People in this version have flaws, and disagreements aren’t all black and white. There are struggles with doubt. 1st and 2nd Nephi are nearly unreadable, IMO, because Nephi is so unbearably inhuman. Every disagreement is 100% good vs. evil. And he’s the man without a flaw, or at least he seems to think so. Laman openly acknowledges his own flaws as well as the goodness he sees in his younger, usurping brother, but we also see the flaws he sees in Nephi.
- It likens scripture to our day. Although there are some anachronisms, intentionally, which for me were a little distracting, it does pull the reader out of the ancient story into the contemporary one that is familiar to us as Mormons in 2017. We all know people like this. We know struggles like this. We are familiar with the arguments that are put forward in this book about doubt, obedience, relationships, the role of leaders, revelation, and so forth.
- Support the BCC Press and other worthwhile publications by Mormon authors. If for no other reason (and I feel that the book has enough pull to merit a perusal), people who enjoy the blogs should also support Mormon authors. BCC Press is a very worthwhile venture, committed to publishing works by authors like Mette who are Mormon thinkers, wrestling with doctrine and culture in ways we wish we could with more ease in our wards. Supporting the BCC Press is supporting the future of Mormon discussion and culture.
The book’s not perfect, but then again, neither is its source material. There’s a lot of gap to fill here. At its best, it’s a thought experiment or a writing assignment in book form. Book of Mormon fan fiction is its own genre, and this one is a far better effort than the majority because of her willingness to ask tougher questions than most Mormon authors.
Ultimately, her book is hopeful and faithful, but not faithful in the way most Mormon gospel doctrine classes would recognize. It’s faithful in taking doubt seriously and hopeful in also taking the love of God for sinners, not just for the self-righteous, seriously.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, here is my review from Amazon:
Laman Finally Gets the Mic. This is a fun read and easy to get through. Harrison tees up interesting questions about modern religious observance while placing it in a Book of Mormon context. She creates an interesting backstory for Laman, Lehi, et al, that addresses questions of how one’s life experiences impact faith, how family relationships can alter a person’s ability to trust other people and God, and how the divine still works on a person who is full of doubts. Well done! Plus, anyone who has actually read the Book of Mormon has to agree that Laman is much more interesting than Nephi. It’s about time we turned this story on its head.
- Have you read it yet? If so, what are your impressions?
- Do you think we would benefit from more empathizing with Laman & Lemuel in our church classes or does that erode faith? Do you think they are beyond redemption?
- Do you like Nephi? If so, how do you deal with his self-serving narrative? Is it righteous to usurp your older brothers and then throw them under the bus?
- How do we improve our understanding of scriptures from the current approach at church? Are we asking the wrong questions? What would you do differently as a teacher?
“Do you think we would benefit from more empathizing with Laman & Lemuel in our church classes or does that erode faith? Do you think they are beyond redemption?”
If you wish to take the Book of Mormon as an uninspired historical type fiction, maybe so. But one accepts that Nephi was a prophet and the Book of Mormon was produced by the gift and power of God, I do believe that empathizing with them is not wise. Granted that it was tough on Laman and Lemuel leaving the comforts of their home and the riches they had there for a harsh and perilous sojourn in the wilderness and desert, but no more than any other person in the group. I find it difficult to empathize with a person that is prone to violence, up to and including murder, to get their way. (The situation with Laban is not comparable.) One has to remember that each and just about every case of conflict it was in response to either a commandment from God or Lehi.
“Do you like Nephi? If so, how do you deal with his self-serving narrative? Is it righteous to usurp your older brothers and then throw them under the bus?”
Whether I like Nephi, or anyone else likes him is unimportant. He was beloved by his people according to subsequent authors in the Book of Mormon, by people that knew him. The important thing to determine concerns his prophetic calling. Was he a prophet called of God? One may cynically look at Nephi’s narrative as self serving because it is the only one we have. Laman and Lemuel did not bother to produce a record of their thoughts and viewpoints for a comparison. If one accepts the Book of Mormon as inspired scripture, then Nephi did not usurp his older brothers rights and throw them under the bus. He was chosen by God and did not take it upon himself to become the ruler of the family. They stepped in the path of the onrushing bus on their own demerits, by their own actions.
For some reason it seems to irritate people when a person openly declares their testimony and willingness to live according to God’s commandments and pernicious efforts begin to undermine such an one with imaginary faults and flaws. Nephi does not claim perfection. In fact he admits to having faults.
17 Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
18 I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.
19 And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. (2 Nephi, chapter 4)
If it had been Laman that had uttered the words “I will go and do the things that the Lord has commanded……” we would be reading the first and second books of Laman rather than 1 and 2 Nephi. That is if one believes that the Book of Mormon is really scripture, inspired and produced by the power of God. If not, this blog and my response both are exercises in futility.
I believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God produced by the gift and power of God. I believe that Nephi was a prophet of God and that his words are inspired of God. And I believe that when God gives us a commandment it is black and white.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on the only thing that didn’t quite click for me about this book, and you nailed it: It’s YA fiction, and that’s how it’s written. Other than that, it’s magnificent, for all the reasons you mentioned. (And that issue is not a criticism; it’s just that I’m no longer a young adult.)
I don’t find 1-2 Nephi “unreadable,” but I do get a chuckle out of Nephi, and more so as I’ve aged and have less and less of the self-righteous certainty that he has so much of. I very much liked Harrison’s characterization of Laman and Lemuel as distinct and different, not uniformly rebellious; each has his own motives and reactions to the events of the narrative, and they end up estranged from each other as well as from Nephi and Sam.
One gets a sense of the passage of time in the events of 1-2 Nephi that one doesn’t get from, say, 1-2 Nephi – in which 30 years goes by as if in in dream, to coin a phrase. There’s actually some development of the individuals involved, which is something Harrison does well in all of her writing. I find the characterization of Lehi as slightly batty, or at least seeming slightly batty, as very credible. I think all of the ancient prophets probably came across as nutcases. (Some of the modern ones do, despite the business suits.)
Ultimately, it becomes a story of redemption. Laman gains, at one point, a personal witness of his Heavenly Father’s love and care for him (hope that isn’t a spoiler) that sustains him through some difficult times. It’s too easy for us to look at the subsequent history of the Lamanite/Nephite conflict and think that Laman planned it all out in advance, ignoring the fact that the actual people (i.e., tribes or bands or groups or whatever) actually swapped places and positions of righteousness any number of times throughout the BoM, so that “Lamanite” and “Nephite” become less a statement of ancestry and more a statement of affiliation.
(Parenthetically, this fact becomes one of the biggest witnesses against the use of the BoM to justify racial division, in my view – whether you take the “skin of darkness” literally or not, the personal righteousness issue becomes a much bigger factor, the torch of righteousness goes back and forth between nations, and there are BoM episodes where Nephites pass as Lamanites to infiltrate the enemy camp and no one ever says, “Say! You look a little pale, there, friend!”)
Laman dies with hope, and in relative peace, knowing (as with most of us) that he has not been perfect, but that he has accomplished much, known much love, and left his mark. We should all be able to say the same – and Mette Harrison, through this and her other works, has accomplished that.
And I believe that when God gives us a commandment it is black and white.
You mean like “Thou Shalt Not Kill” ?
It’s extremely dangerous not to empathize with those with whom we disagree. The Savior did it all the time, and I think I’d rather take his example than Nephi’s in that regard. Lack of empathy leads one to discount one’s opponent as less than human – in fact, it’s a common objective of military training, in order to make it easier to kill. It happens along race and class lines, too, with cops and politicians.
I think this – ” I do believe that empathizing with them is not wise” – is an extremely dangerous statement. I would be wary of any Church leader who really believed that. Of such cloth is cut zealots, fanatics, and crusaders, not Christians.
Glenn: “If it had been Laman that had uttered the words “I will go and do the things that the Lord has commanded……” we would be reading the first and second books of Laman rather than 1 and 2 Nephi.” The funny thing is, the book makes this exact point and does it while rendering Laman a more empathetic figure. Rather than driving by with your assumptions, how about picking up the book and giving it a read?
“That is if one believes that the Book of Mormon is really scripture, inspired and produced by the power of God. If not, this blog and my response both are exercises in futility.” Ouch, I nearly detached a retina on that eye roll. Puh-lease with the lines in the sand, dude. Get over yourself.
“I believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God produced by the gift and power of God. I believe that Nephi was a prophet of God and that his words are inspired of God.” The book doesn’t argue with either of these points, so again, you seem to be assuming what it is without any evidence. Fan fiction based on it seems to be a way to take the text more seriously, not less. Engagement is engagement. Being unwilling to reimagine or wrestle with the text in new ways isn’t superior to the more creative approach taken here by Harrison.
“And I believe that when God gives us a commandment it is black and white.” Scary.
I felt like there was a lot of potential with this concept that unfortunately went unrealized. Recasting Laman and his ultimate redemption was helpful and something to ponder. As not particularly good young adult fiction however there was not really any character development of any other characters. Nephi and Sam and others are unidimensional in the book, it would have been much more interesting to see a nuanced Nephi interact with Laman. There is a moment where we see Sam start to show another side and Laman starts to build an interest in him but then it is dropped and never revisited.
I think this sort of thing is a great tool to find deeper layers of meaning in scripture. I have no problem empathizing with Laman and Lemuel because most of us are probably more like them than we are Nephi. We can imagine their lives to explore our own. As a teacher I might try to pose questions to the class that deviate from the standard narrative.
“If one accepts the Book of Mormon as inspired scripture, then Nephi did not usurp his older brothers rights and throw them under the bus.” If one accepts the Book of Mormon as inspired scripture, then it would behoove us to understand why the Lamanites believed Nephi usurped his older brother’s rights and threw them under the bus. When we deal with mortal prophets today, we must deal with misunderstandings and varying perspectives. I have many ancestors in our church’s history who risked everything to follow prophets for decades, only to get excommunicated later in life because they openly disagreed with local leaders. I find it valuable to consider the perspectives of both my ancestors and the leaders they contended with. If I put myself in the place of my ancestor, then it forces me to consider, would I have responded the same way? I don’t condone the violence Laman and Lemuel inflicted on Nephi and Sam, but I do understand why people get angry when prophets command things that put people’s lives at risk. It’s one thing to sacrifice your own life; it’s quite another to sacrifice the lives of your wives and children.
Also, as New Iconoclast said, the Nephites were not always considered more righteous than the Lamanites. In the book of Jacob, only one or two generations after Nephi, Nephite men are treating their wives and children abominably, while the Lamanites seem not to have fallen into that trap. Why? That was one of the interesting points about Harrison’s book, Laman was much more attentive to his wife than Nephi. It felt a little weird, but I had to admit I could see the scriptural support she’d use for it.
I didn’t agree with several decisions Harrison made in her book, but it forced me to think about *why* I didn’t agree. Was it because it did not follow details in the scriptural record? Or was it because it did not match an unjustified picture I had come up with in my head? While I have never identified with Laman and Lemuel in the Book of Mormon, I have often found it difficult to identify with the often two-dimensional “superheroes” as well. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what other support figures may have been thinking and feeling. I think these types of thought exercises are useful in a world where only one mortal has ever achieved perfection, yet we are asked to follow mortals nevertheless.
I have to admit to an aversion to reading about Laman being a good guy. I realize there’s two sides to every tortilla, and Nephi does come off as being hard to live with, but I don’t find myself wanting to empathize with a murderous rebel. It’s exhausting to empathize with every miscreant’s sob story of how their adverse circumstances/childhoods justify, or at least explain, why they do their evil deeds. I don’t want to know what happened to the guy in his youth that causes him to beat his wife — he simply needs to stop. Everybody’s got their excuses. I’ve been telling myself my whole life that mine don’t matter, I’ve gotta be a stand-up guy anyway. Same with everybody else, because nobody can control them but them.
Plus, I feel there needs to be something black and white as a reference point. I don’t like having everything dragged into the realm of the gray.
The fact is, I do care very much about what people go through that causes them to do horrible things. I’m fated to be in the situation where I get to interact with some of them personally. It’s too draining for me to have interest in doing it for fun.
I will honestly never understand why the people who insist most adamantly that we read the Book of Mormon as history and not as a novel are the ones most likely to insist that we read it like a novel and not like history.
All history written by humans–even inspired humans working with the gift and power of God–is messy. That is because humans are messy. Historical writing always has a perspective, and that perspective always leaves important things out–because that’s how human perspective works. Actual historical people are never consistently one thing or another. They are bundles of contradictions, and they always act for reasons that combine altruism and selfishness and pride and resentment and good things and bad things. Because that is what human beings are. If you believe that the Book of Mormon is history, then you need to be prepared to read it that way.
But what you propose here is not the kind of story that we get in history. Stories of people who act with a single mind, who are always good or always bad, who are universally beloved by their people come from fairy tales and bad novels and action movies–and state propaganda designed to manipulate history into the service of present agendas. Books that come from a single perspective and do not ignore other important things do not come in history. They come in fiction (and not even very good fiction at that).
What you are suggesting here is that we declare the Book of Mormon to be a primary historical text and then insisting that we read it like a mediocre novel, never questioning the perspective, always assuming that everything important is there, never wondering about the spaces in the text or the biases of the narrators–and generally cheering for all of the good guys and hissing at the bad guys because we know that the good guys are always good and the bad guys are always bad. This isn’t how you read history. It is how you read the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew novels and watch Spiderman movies.
If we want to believe that the Book of Mormon is a historical text, then we have to be willing to do the hard work necessary to read it as what it claims to be.
“I don’t find myself wanting to empathize with a murderous rebel. It’s exhausting to empathize with every miscreant’s sob story of how their adverse circumstances/childhoods justify, or at least explain, why they do their evil deeds.” Again, I am hearing an assumption in your comment that you assume Harrison’s book will justify what Laman did. I definitely don’t feel she fell into that trap. The book humanizes him, but he is still deeply, deeply flawed.
Hawk, “The book humanizes him,” AND “he is still deeply, deeply flawed.” I think those things go together, which, if it wasn’t the author’s point, is still a worthwhile takeaway in an increasingly polarized world (and church).
I prefer to accept the scriptures a they are, and not fictionally re-imagine them to suit my preferences. Personally, I don’t like historical fiction, and have not read the allegedly faith-promoting The Work and the Glory. I suppose one day we’ll have a Book of Satan explaining how unfair others have been to him. I would perhaps like the idea of a Book of Laman a little better if its cover did not mimic the Book of Mormon cover, but I understand that that was purposefully done, and if it were clearly on its face identified as humor or satire, which I understand it is not. But then, I’m not the target audience for the book. I don’t have any knowledge about why Laman chose the path he did, other than what we read in the Book of Mormon.
I was intrigued by the concept but bored by the conception. I had to force myself to pick it up again and again to finish. Fun thought experiment that needed much more work to succeed as literature.
“I find it difficult to empathize with a person that is prone to violence, up to and including murder, to get their way. (The situation with Laban is not comparable.)”
Glenn, please expand this thought. Why is the murder of Laban not comparable?
It’s not comparable for Glenn because Nephi wasn’t prone to violence. Harrison’s book makes the same point. The character Laman knows he’s unrighteous because he wouldn’t have felt bad killing Laban; he feels sorry for Nephi because he knows Nephi will be haunted by the experience.
@Michael Austin, You said:
“But what you propose here is not the kind of story that we get in history. Stories of people who act with a single mind, who are always good or always bad, who are universally beloved by their people come from fairy tales and bad novels and action movies–and state propaganda designed to manipulate history into the service of present agendas. Books that come from a single perspective and do not ignore other important things do not come in history. They come in fiction (and not even very good fiction at that).”
I never proposed a story where one people are always good and always bad. I pointed out where Nephi himself admits to not being anywhere near perfect. The Book of Mormon is replete with messy stories of good people going bad, bad people repenting. The story of Laman and Lemuel is not all bad either.
But it doesn’t really matter about that. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like reading about a straight as an arrow prophet such as Nephi (or most of the other Book of M0rmon prophets and leaders) or Elijah or Isaiah, or the such. All such prophets had their faults else they probably would have been taken up as was the city of Zion. But delineating their faults was not the purpose of their callings as prophets. Nephi had a lot of story to tell and a limited amount of space to write it. He gave us what he felt inspired to give us. The complaints against Nephi’s narrative seem more of a case of shooting the messenger.
I don’t really know what you believe about the Book of Mormon, i.e. whether it was produced by the power and authority of God or not. If yo do not, we really have little to discuss.
@Mormon Heretic. You know we have actually had such a discussion some time ago on one of your blogs. The text makes it pretty plain that Nephi was commanded by God to kill a man that had twice tried to kill parts of his family and had stolen the the valuables that they had brought from their home to try to buy the Brass Plates. In the case of Laman and Lemuel there instead was a murderous rebellion against the commandments of God. They had seen and been rebuked by angels, had seen Nephi’s bands with which they had tied him loosened by the power of God, had received a great shock just at his touch, and had seen the great storm that was about to engulf the ship they were in abate after they had loosened Nephi’s bond and he offered up a prayer for deliverance to the Lord.
Now whether you believe that is up to you. But the text does differentiate most distinctly.
I really don’t appreciate this mentality of my fellow members, that “the only question that matters is whether ‘so-and-so’ was a prophet,” and that all other questions are meaningless. It has been proven time and time again that prophets are imperfect people. even when receiving revelation (see Elder Uchtdorf’s essay on racism in early church history). Multiple prophets have urged members to pray to know that individual commandments are true and to not blindly trust just because they have the title of “prophet.”
The veneration and unquestioned following of flawed, mortal human beings like ourselves is counter to God’s plan, and it’s how cults come into being. The fact that countless members of our church do this with our own leadership makes the cult argument all the more difficult to address when speaking with confused non-members.
There are SO MANY important things to consider other than “whether a person is/was a prophet,” because if you excuse yourself from all moral decision making, and leave it to someone you consider higher than yourself, you are willfully robbing yourself of the very purpose of our existence.
And I know Glenn will hate hearing this, as would many members, but here’s a cold hard fact – Our knowledge of the truthfulness of our church is subjective. Regardless of how strongly you feel or how sure you believe you are, your confirmation of the truthfulness of any element is subject to your upbringing, your personal beliefs, your desire to be accepted by your family, community, etc. No matter how hard you try to ignore these biases, they are an integral part of you. This is not to negate anyone’s testimony. I have one myself. But you have to understand that no testimony is gained in a vacuum. The number of people in the world who have prayed for a testimony from a completely neutral, unbiased place could probably be counted on one hand.
Again – a testimony is a beautiful thing. It is you reaching out to God and him reaching back. But you cannot use it as a blanket revelation that excuses you from critical thinking and asking difficult questions. Were that the case, the scriptures would be only one page, with the words “Check with the prophet” printed in large, bold letters.
Pondering the nature of Nephi’s character is just as important as ‘knowing beyond all shadow of a doubt’ that he was a prophet.
Glenn, “I don’t really know what you believe about the Book of Mormon, i.e. whether it was produced by the power and authority of God or not. If yo do not, we really have little to discuss.” On this blog we invite all to participate in the discussion, regardless of whether they are current members, former members, or have never been a part of the church. A testimony, or lack thereof, does not determine the validity of someone’s opinion. Please, be respectful.
Edited to add: And, implying that a person doesn’t have a testimony when they actually *do* have a testimony is incredibly offensive. You may want to check out Michael Austin’s #BOM2016 series at BCC.