The Gates of Eden was loosely inspired by my great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Barton Allen. I found her story heartbreaking. As an author, I could give her a different ending.Nadene LeCheminant, author of The Gates of Eden, in the post “All in the Family”
Inspired by her own family’s history, Nadene LeCheminant crafts a pioneer coming-of-age story exploring the hardships of the Latter-day Saint (Mormon) pioneer experience, including polygamy and the trauma of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I’m not usually one for historical fiction, but I’ve been immersed in the stories of my own pioneer ancestors for the last two months, so a re-imagining of an ancestor’s story in The Gates of Eden was too intriguing to pass up.
LeCheminant was inspired by the real-life experiences of her ancestor, Mary Ann Barton Allen. Mary Ann was ridiculed by her older siblings for joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in her native England. When she was 14, she “left England to come to Utah for the Gospel’s sake.” Unfortunately, Mary Ann was a member of the ill-fated Martin Handcart Company. She survived the journey, but her father did not. Less than three months after arriving in Utah, Mary Ann became a plural wife to a man in his fifties. She eventually bore her husband over ten children, but she appears to have been the less-favored wife and was mainly left alone to support herself and her children. In The Gates of Eden, protagonist Josephine Bell initially follows a similar journey.
Sixteen-year-old Josephine at first grows up in a position of privilege in Liverpool, England. The death of her father unfortunately reveals years of accumulated debt, and the family is thrust into poverty. Destitute, Josephine and her mother become receptive to the messages of the Mormon missionaries and the idea of gathering to Zion in the American West, a land supposedly flowing with milk and honey. Josephine’s brothers ridicule their involvement in the fringe religion, and her sister also voices misgivings.
The first half of the book focuses on Josephine and her mother’s journey to Utah. On the ship we get to know several other European converts, and we watch as the individual members of the group respond to the challenges of sea and overland travel. Like LeCheminant’s ancestor, they travel by handcart, but they do not experience the extreme conditions of the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies.
One of the strengths of the book is the incorporation of mundane details (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) into the story. In a personal email, the author explained, “One thing I find disappointing is that the official recounting of the handcart journey has been sanitized in order to be more faith-promoting. The sweat and grit and dust and despair don’t come through.” LeCheminant has a background in history, and she did extensive research in preparation for the novel.
One thing I found exhilarating is how much historical information exists about early Mormonism. Because Mormons are record-keeping people, there are thousands of sources. I supplemented my archival research with walking part of the Mormon Trail, riding a horse, pulling a handcart, and spending days with butter churners and quilters and blacksmiths. A local rancher pointed out the original trail over Heartbreak Ridge, where I found traces of the ruts. And I spent a morning alone at the Mountain Meadows Massacre site with just the wind as company, feeling the echoes of that past tragedy. The most poignant part of the research was searching for traces of my great-great-grandmother’s cabin down in the desert.Nadene LeCheminant
The second half of the book focuses on Josephine’s experiences in Southern Utah. She becomes a schoolteacher in Cedar City, and is taken in by a kindly family there. As part of the zeal of the Mormon Reformation, she is pressured into becoming the second wife of the husband in that household, a man in his fifties. She is also witness to the rising tensions as the members prepare for the invasion of Johnston’s Army. As a recent British convert, she does not have the traumatic memories of mob violence in Missouri and Illinois that permeates the community. When the tensions finally lead to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Josephine and those in the community must cope with the psychological impact of the horrific event and the culpability of their friends and family members.
The book is not a criticism of members of the Church or Mormonism in general, but there are a couple elements that might rub active members the wrong way. First is the general depiction of polygamy. The story is based on a real-life account of a teenage girl marrying a much older man. Besides Josephine’s husband in her plural marriage, we only meet two other men who are practicing polygamists, and both are older men with at least one significantly younger wife. There are no younger men practicing plural marriage. It definitely leaves an impression that one motive of historical Mormon polygamy was old men getting to sleep with young girls (which is not something anyone should be comfortable with). Also, it’s easy to leave the book feeling like the only motives these young women had for agreeing to such marriages were pressure/fear (Chapter 28) or hoping for a rise in social status (Chapter 17). You don’t really hear anything from women arguing in favor of polygamy, even though it was not unusual to have Mormon women defending the practice in the 19th century.
The other potential trouble spot is the brief mention of temple ceremonies shortly before Josephine is sealed as a plural wife (Chapter 20). Josephine’s endowment experience is definitely jarring and negative. Although most of the elements that Josephine finds objectionable are not part of modern-day ceremonies, some members could find the depiction uncomfortable. On the other hand, readers who’ve had their own negative experiences in the temple could feel both empathy and validation.
Other than those small caveats, I think anyone wanting to understand the historical Mormon pioneer experience better, whether a member of the Church or not, will appreciate the book. LeCheminant said, “I would encourage every Mormon, and every Utahn for that matter, to walk part of the Mormon Trail. The Mormons have left an amazing historical legacy, one that should be understood and appreciated no matter what religious or spiritual tradition we belong to.”
Those in the Wheat and Tares community may be interested in Nadene LeCheminant’s own faith journey. LeCheminant grew up a member of the Church. She explained to me, “I became fascinated with Mormon history when I was in college studying for a history degree and left the Church, in part, because of my discomfort. I have a much more nuanced view now. Every religion has its own backstory, containing uncomfortable events and the inspirational events.” At the end of her book, each of the characters negotiates their own relationship with God and the Church following the tragedy of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. “Ultimately, the reader makes their own choice about their spiritual journey—how and where they find God and the divine.”
 From a transcription of Mary Ann Barton Allen’s autobiography on FamilySearch.
 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870 said on a 2017 NPR interview: “And when [Mormon women] acted publicly in 1870, when this discussion was going on, they astonished the world by creating a very large meeting to defend polygamy, which one woman expressed as the right to choose my own husband.”