You know the place. It’s where John Dutton and his tough as nails crew of kids and cowboys live, work, and kill various interlopers and troublemakers practically every week. It’s a fictional ranch somewhere in Montana. It’s also a real ranch a few miles south of Darby, Montana. Driving up to Seattle last week, I took the scenic route up US 93 and stopped to take a picture of the front ranch gate (see above). Squint a little and you’ll see the name. So let’s talk about fictional narratives set in real places, sometimes with made up names. (Some of you can guess where this is going.)

There are, of course, fictional narratives set in entirely fictional places. Epic tales of Valhalla and Asgard. The planet Vulcan. Middle Earth. Erewhon. Even fictional places bear resemblance to actual earthly places, written as they are by humans who have lived their life in actual earthly places. It’s almost impossible for a writer not to inject a lot of their own experience into the narrative, including a make believe world created just for the narrative.

Then there are fictional narratives set in real places, possibly with a real historical character or two thrown in. One of my favorites is Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, set in Moscow but Smith never visited Moscow — all the details were drawn from maps and descriptions of buildings and landmarks. Add your own favorites. Last of the Mohicans. Call of the Wild. Movies emphasize the real-world footprint of these fictional narratives because they do a lot of filming on location, an actual location. That holds not just for fictional narratives set in real locations. If you go to New Zealand you can visit Hobbiton and the Green Dragon Inn, I’m told. When I visited New Zealand, it was just New Zealand. Now it’s Middle Earth.

Here’s the point: Finding a real-world location that matches a scene in a fictional narrative, or finding a real-world geographical setting for a fictional narrative, does nothing to establish the veracity of the fictional narrative. Obviously, if a book is sold as a mystery novel or the title includes the words “a novel” then most people aren’t going to leap to the false conclusion that the fictional narrative is actually a historical narrative. It’s dodgy narratives that make a claim to be true accounts in order to boost sales or lend an air of mystery to the narrative — or straight up literary frauds that try to pass the narrative off as something that it is not for some ulterior motive of the author — that raise the issue and are the real problem. Most people can see through these literary devices and clever associations with real-world locations, but not all. Let’s face it, in the Age of Trump it has become obvious that there are some people who will believe anything, however unsupported by facts. Perhaps there are children dragged along on a New Zealand vacation who fly home thinking they have actually seen the Shire. We expect better from adults, but don’t aim too high. Remember the guy who burst into an actual pizza place near Washington, DC, looking for the (fictional, Trumpish propaganda) child abuse ring run by Hillary Clinton? Sure, the joke’s on him, but it is strong evidence in favor of the claim that some people will believe anything.

So let’s talk about Book of Mormon geography. Apologists and interested (sometimes obsessed) lay Mormons spend a lot of time trying to connect locations in the narrative with real-world locations in the Americas and beyond. There may be some personal satisfaction that comes to such sleuths if they can point to a map and say with sincere conviction, “There, that’s where Zarahemla was,” or “look, that has to be the narrow neck of land.” But my suspicion is that such endeavours are powered by the belief that connecting a place in the narrative with a real-world location establishes the veracity of the narrative as historical. I suspect they think the claim “There, that’s where Zarahemla was” strongly or even incontrovertibly supports the conclusion that there really was a Zarahemla or, in Mormonspeak, “the Book of Mormon is true!” As if Joseph couldn’t have looked at a map to draw the rather general descriptions of Book of Mormon locations and their relative proximity to each other, using made up or even slightly modified names when needed. I like the resemblance between Jacobsburg, Ohio (established 1815) and the strange Jacob-Ugath in the Book of Mormon. It’s also just a little humorous that the land of Desolation, north of the narrow neck of land, seems to correspond to Canada.

But let me restate my earlier point specifically applied to Book of Mormon geography: Finding real-world locations that match scenes and locations described in the Book of Mormon does nothing to establish the veracity or historicity of the Book of Mormon narrative. If this were widely recognized, I suspect a lot of the energy that goes into Book of Mormon geography and even archeology work would soon dissipate. I’m sure there is a technical name for the class of logical fallacies of believing a point proven or established based on insufficient evidence or faulty reasoning. Book of Mormon geography sleuths seem to be working under that faulty belief.

So here are some relevant questions from the post that readers can expand on in the comments.

  • Has anyone actually gone past the front gate of the Yellowstone Ranch (aka the Chief Joseph Ranch) and seen the large ranch house and stables? Maybe seen a dead body or two lying around?
  • Has anyone visited Hobbiton and the Shire in Middle Earth (aka New Zealand)? I’d like to go back someday.
  • Has anyone (or a close relative) taken a Book of Mormon tour in Central America? Do Heartlanders run similar travel tours?
  • Do you take Book or Mormon geography seriously, or do you think it’s just a waste of time, effort, and money?
  • If you take Book of Mormon geography seriously as an important topic, please comment on the fact that modern LDS General Authorities stay as far away from the topic as possible, avoiding all public comment on any aspect of Book of Mormon geography except to claim the events in the narrative actually, certainly, most assuredly, did in fact happen somewhere in the world, we just don’t know where.