Michael Austin is a board member of BCC Press.
Mette Harrison’s The Book of Laman, published in July by BCC Press, is the sort of book that is almost always misunderstood badly by people who haven’t bothered to read it. This is because it looks like it is doing things that it is not actually doing, and the things it is doing are so unexpected that you pretty much have to read the whole thing to understand them. I want to talk about what those things are, but first, let’s spend a few minutes talking about what they aren’t.
First, this is not a work of satire, There have been other books published with the same premise–the early portions of the Book of Mormon told from Laman’s perspective–that have been satirical, and the idea of telling a story from an antagonist’s point of view seems to lend itself to an ironic treatment. But this is not what Harrison is doing. She is taking the Book of Mormon and its characters extremely seriously throughout.
Second, it is not a defense of Laman. I have talked with several faithful Latter-day Saints about the book who (despite never having read it) are offended by the idea of a book “defending” Laman and “attacking” Nephi. But this is not that book. Nephi occasionally comes off as a know-it-all-brat (much as Joseph does in Genesis), but Harrison makes it very clear that he is a know-it-all brat who is a prophet–someone who actually communicates with God, conveys divine truth, and leads his people in righteousness. The book does not require us to revise anything we know about Nephi.
What the book does do is introduce us to a much more complex Laman than we meet in the Book of Mormon and then view the narrative through his perspective. Perspective is important, and one of the requirements of treating the Book of Mormon as a work of history is recognizing that perspective colors the judgments of historians no matter how honest, competent, or beloved of the Lord they may be.
Harrison’s Laman does all of the awful things that Laman does in the Book of Mormon–he murmurs against his father, he smites his brethren, and he ties Nephi up when they are on the boat. But he is not just evil for the sake of being evil. He has reasons that many readers will find compelling. And he tries hard to be a good person and use the light he has to help his family and support his God.
But most of the time, he can’t do it. He is a person with noble intentions and weak follow-through who can’t quite ever measure up to his own ideals. Laman is, in other words, a creature very much like the rest of us–somebody that we can understand and sympathize with because we share both his desires and his weaknesses. And his fate should matter to us because, if we are honest, it will likely be our fate too.
With The Book of Laman, Mette Harrison joins a long list of authors who use point-of-view shifts to create profound commentary on another work. Among the most famous examples are Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (Jane Eyre from the perspective of the madwoman in the attic), Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Hamlet) John Gardner’s Grendel (Beowulf) and Gregory MaGuire’s Wicked (an awful novel based on the Wizard of Oz that became a delightful Broadway show). Each of these works retells the original story in ways that both interpret it and create new works of art around it.
All of these books were going through my mind when I read The Book of Laman for the first time, but the book it reminded me of the most is the masterful short novel Barabbas by Swedish Nobel laureate Pär Lagerkvist. In this reworking of a Bible story, the thief Barabbas is portrayed as the first person in the world to be redeemed by Christ’s voluntary sacrifice on the cross. who was redeemed from death by Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Haunted by that reality, he becomes a Christian and tries to believe. But all he can manage to do is commit violent acts in the name of his new faith. He lacks the ability to love and forgive.
Lagerkvist’s Barabbas resembles Harrison’s Laman in one important way: they are both characters who strive for an ideal of righteousness that they are too broken to attain. Barabbas dies unredeemed because he can never understand what love means. Laman, on the other hand, does know what love means–not from his father or brother, but from God himself. Consider the following passage that occurs after Laman and Lemuel try to leave Lehi’s camp in the wilderness and return to Jerusalem, only to be lost and caught in a fierce sandstorm:
I felt pressed to a chest, though, and I was sure I could feel another heart beating next to mine. And it was not Lemuel’s, because his heart had to have fluttering as anxiously as mine was, and this heart was safe and sure. This heart was deep and wide enough to fill an ocean, yet delicate enough to answer my own blood’s question.
I love you, the heart told me. And the pressure of the arms. And the chin that I felt just above the top of my head.
I love you, I heard without a voice. Though you run from me. Though you do not trust me. Though you do not know my language and do not read of my words to others. Though you have evil thoughts. Though you hate your brothers and your father, who are my prophets. Though you will do evil all your days. Though you may not repent or grow wiser or kinder or greater than you are.
Still, I love you. (52-53)
For all of his brokenness, Laman is redeemed, and redeemable–not because he is good and loves God perfectly, but because God is good and loves Laman perfectly. In Harrison’s reading of the Book of Mormon–and I believe that this is wholly consistent with the text–God’s grace and love are great enough to redeem even Laman.
And this is very good news for the rest of us.