Title: States of Deseret
Editor: William Morris
Publisher: Peculiar Pages / A Motley Vision
Genre: Alternate history
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 109
Reviewed by Gabriel González for the Association for Mormon Letters
Right off the start, I need to acknowledge some bias—I’m a fan of the genre. Before turning the first page, or rather scrolling into the first screen, I was fairly sure I would like it. And I did. Like I said, I love the genre. The reason I do is because by presenting the history that wasn’t, the stories spun by alternate historians, when properly done, get the reader to reflect upon why things actually did turn out the way they did… and whether that is a good thing at all. In other words, it’s not the entertainment value per se that works for me in this genre but rather what it tells us about us.
And this book does that telling quite well. States of Deseret is a short story collection set in alternate histories of the Mormon Church. The collection asks the “what if…?” question eight different times, in eight different ways, with eight different outcomes. Some of the authors I quickly recognized as old pros in the craft of writing; others I was unfamiliar with. Whatever the case may be, the eight stories, with their eight different styles, come together in a very satisfying way. The editor did a fantastic job with his selection.
Each story was entertaining, and more importantly, each had an interesting point to raise. Even so, to appreciate some of the stories, readers really need to know their Mormon history… and some gentile history as well. So people who are not historically inclined would more than likely not appreciate the stories as much. Of course, this is probably true of all alternate history.
Because this book brings together individual short stories, it is hard to review it without referring to the specific stories. And because what makes these stories interesting is what happens in them, it’s hard to review them without spoilers. But I hate spoilers. So I’ll proceed by saying a few words about each story, and in order to avoid spoilers as much as possible, I’ll focus not on the plot but on the characters and the “point of divergence.” (The point of divergence is the place in the alternate timeline where their history splits from ours.) So, here we go:
“Guns of Perdition” by D.J. Butler. Butler has successfully told alternate histories before (see his steampunk City of Saints). In this short story he brings his fine-tuned craft to 1856 Nauvoo. The tale involves Joseph Smith III, Isaac Haight (of the Mountain Meadows Massacre), James Strang (King of the Strangites), and Jonathan Browning (an early convert and gunsmith). It also features Joseph Smith, in a way. The story starts with the feel of a typical Western, but grows stranger and stranger until a perfect climax. While I enjoyed the story, I’m not sure it qualifies as alternate history. It has no point of divergence and, if anything, what the story does is explain why the lives of its four protagonists end up the way they do in our world. While expertly crafted, it felt more like magic realism than alternate history. Also, because the ultimate outcome of the story is history as we know it, it is the least thought-provoking piece of the bunch.
“Latter-Day Confederacy of Many Nations” by Lori Taylor. Taylor’s background in the relationship between Latter-day Saints and American Indians helps her bring together this story that places Neolin (a Delaware prophet), Handsome Lake (an Iroquois prophet), Wovoka (a Paiute religious leader), and Smohalla (a Wanapum prophet) on equal footing with Joseph Smith. The point of divergence occurs in 1830 when the first mission to the Lamanites leads to the forging of a confederacy of Indians and Mormons. But what if that’s not all there was to it? I appreciated this short story because it’s very much about what happens nowadays when some people find out that history is more complex than they thought. How might someone react when they find out, for example, that Joseph Smith had many wives? The lingering question in this short story is whether those kinds of things matter at all 180 years later.
“Richard Meets the Missionaries” by Anneke Garcia. This is the only story not set in what we call the United States. It’s set in the UK and tackles the issue of race and the Church directly. The point of divergence occurs when Joseph Smith’s parents move to Liberia, which leads to the Restoration taking place in Africa. In a very good move, the author doesn’t reveal everyone’s race right away, so it takes the reader a minute or two to realize all characters except one are black. By turning the Church into a black, African church, the story forces us to consider how race plays a role in how we view the Church.
“Not Even the Names Have Been Changed” by Marion Jensen. Jensen enjoys humor, and this story is a good show of it. While it’s not a comedy, the tone is much lighter than other stories in this collection. The point of divergence is that the Saints settle in California. Flash forward a century and a half and two individuals from that alternate timeline speculate about what Church history might have been if the Saints had not reached California but settled in an odd place like Utah. This set-up provides for interesting dialogue, including some that is metafictional. This story is worthwhile because it asks the question whether, if God is at the helm, the specific ebbs and flows of history matter at all.
“Another Meadow” by Eric A. Eliason. The historical figures in this story are John D. Lee (the only person ever convicted for the Mountain Meadows Massacre), Jacob Hamblin (the “Apostle to the Lamanites”), and Alexander Fancher (a leader in the ill-fated party of immigrants from Arkansas), among others. The point of divergence is when Jacob Hamblin finds out about the plans to massacre Fancher and his party. This short story was rather disturbing, because it seems to imply that things probably ended up being better for the Church because there was a Mountain Meadows Massacre. The story is probably intended to get us to think about historical revisionism, but this idea that it was possibly a good thing Fancher didn’t make it to California is bothersome enough that it was hard for me to see past it.
“The Father” by Inari Porkka. This is one of two stories in the collection that asks what might have happened had a famous person joined the Church. The point of divergence comes when, after divorcing his wife, Leo Tolstoy becomes a Mormon and migrates to Utah. I must confess that I haven’t read Tolstoy, so it was hard for me to appreciate to what extent the short story draws upon the historical character and his thinking. Regardless, even the uninitiated like myself can appreciate the story as a trigger to think about our own artistic tradition as Latter-day Saints.
“The Electric Apostle” by David J. West. This is the other story about a famous person joining the Church, in this case, scientist and electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla. While for purposes of the story the point of divergence is Tesla’s becoming a Mormon, the whole world created by the author is somehow different from ours. West has written dark fantasy books, and there’s a hint of the supernatural in this story, but only a hint. Rather, the story is effective about getting us to contemplate a more science-based approach to the Mormon religion.
“Subject to Kings” by Lee Allred. This was my favorite story in the collection. The stakes are high. The tension is palpable. It boasts Nazis, international espionage, complex characters, and an open ending. It is masterfully crafted, as one would expect from a successful, professional writer like Allred. The point of divergence occurs before the short story’s opening, which is set in the year 1938 at a time when the Republic of Deseret, the Confederate States, and the Texas Lone Star Republic exist independently of the United States. The likes of Hermann Goering and J. Reuben Clark play key roles in the plot. After reading it, one is left with the lingering question of whether we can effectively recognize conflicts between our political loyalties and our spiritual values.
In essence, the selection of short stories is solid. Even though a wide trove of historical knowledge is necessary to fully appreciate all of them, they are still accessible to the average reader. They use different framing devices and mostly create different alternative histories in order to get the reader to consider not just what might have been but also why things are as they are within Mormonism. If that is your cup of tea, then this book should be on your must-read list. Oh, and if you are looking for something based strictly on its entertainment value, there’s something for you here too.