Awards for the Best Mormon Books, Movies, and Plays of 2000

President Hinckley, Patricia Holland, Richard Dutcher among those honored.

At the annual Association for Mormon Letters conference held on February 24, 2001, at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, the AML presented awards in several literary categories.

Award for the Essay: Gordon B. Hinckley

The Association for Mormon Letters presents an award in the essay for 2000 to Gordon B. Hinckley for Standing for Something (Times Books, 2000).

Once in a great while, a book comes along that makes such a significant contribution to our culture that it really needs to be recognized in a significant way. This past year, Latter-day Saints witnessed an unimagined phenomenon as the president of the Church wrote a book that ended up on the New York Times bestseller list. That book, Standing for Something, is a forthright, unflinching call for society to return to its moral moorings.

In a day of rationalizations and redefinitions regarding family and morality, here is a book that says, without apology, that married couples ought to stay married, that parents have actual responsibilities to teach their children, and that the way to find happiness and personal freedom is to embrace such values as integrity, civility, and hard work.

That President Gordon B. Hinckley would say such things is no surprise to anyone in our culture. That a national publisher would produce his book, that Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes would write a foreword for it, and that hundreds of thousands of people across the country would buy copies of it-those are unforeseen and unprecedented events.

President Hinckley has always been an opener of doors, and Standing for Something has opened new doors for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in ways that will affect the world’s view of us for years to come. It has built a bridge between Zion and New York, demonstrating that Mormon views and Mormon writings are welcome in the national culture.

Award for Devotional Literature: Patricia T. Holland

The Association for Mormon Letters presents an award in devotional literature for 2000 to Patricia T. Holland for A Quiet Heart (Deseret Book, 2000).

On a beautiful day, Patricia T. Holland sat overlooking the Sea of Galilee, wondering whether life should be as hard as it was and worrying that she had not succeeded in her stewardships. As she felt the healing rays of the sun, she seemed to hear Heavenly Father whisper to her, “You don’t have to worry over so many things. The only thing that is truly needful is to keep your eyes toward the sun-my Son.” Against the backdrop of experiences such as this, Sister Holland leads the reader of A Quiet Heart on a search for wholeness and holiness.

Sister Holland soothes the troubled mind, encouraging the reader to “turn a few things down and turn a few things off” in order to seek solutions and comfort from the one true source. With warmth, wisdom, and humor, she explains that joy will only be ours when our actions and our aspirations match God’s plan for us, not God’s plan for somebody else.

Her honesty about her feelings and her willingness to discuss personal challenges assure readers that their own challenges can be met with courage and serenity. With her friendly style, she inspires readers toward more consistent spiritual strivings without making them feel more frenzied and guilty. She invites readers to feel and enjoy the Lord’s love for them. “Rest in that love. . . . Let it relax, calm and comfort you.” A Quiet Heart is the quintessential inspirational book. It leads readers gently, quietly, and steadily toward having hearts filled with charity-for themselves, for others, and for God.

This thought-provoking and well-crafted work instills peace and hope in its readers and leaves them with Sister Holland’s stirring reassurance that “God will not fail or forsake us.”

Award for Film: Richard Dutcher

The Association for Mormon Letters presents an award in filmmaking for 2000 to Richard Dutcher for God’s Army (Zion Films and Excel Entertainment Group, 2000).

When considering Richard Dutcher’s film God’s Army, the immediate temptation is to focus on this film more for what it seems to herald than for what it actually is. Since LDS filmmaking has now so clearly taken such a major step forward with the release of God’s Army, cinema can now be said to have joined the conversation with our culture that so many LDS novelists, playwrights, poets, and essayists have been engaging in for generations. God’s Army seems to presage a movement, a renaissance, in which Richard Dutcher, in the best LDS tradition, plays the role of pioneer.

And yet we ought not allow the God’s Army event to overshadow the film itself. It’s such a lovely, intimate film, a film of understatement and modesty. A powerful miracle scene is treated quietly, without intrusive underscoring or acting histrionics. A prayer scene is accompanied not by violins or choral angels but by the simple sound of a car engine sputtering to a start. The camera work is inobtrusive, and yet the camera is always in the right place, and the lighting convincingly captures the shabbiness of missionary apartments.

Dutcher’s writing has the same understated complexity as we find in the best fiction of Doug Thayer or John Bennion. His characters are rich, multifaceted, and multidimensional. Dutcher’s missionaries are believable both as young men and as God’s servants, easily confused and yet also idealistic, given to practical jokes but also capable of great faith.

The story of the making of God’s Army, the struggle to raise funds and to find a distributor, is in many ways as inspirational as the film itself. God’s Army is a fine and an important film, but it was also a commercial success. That may be the most encouraging thing about it. And so, the Association for Mormon Letters honors not only a remarkable piece of LDS writing but also the work of a producer of courage and tenacity, a director of vision and imagination, an actor of sensitivity and insight, and a marketer of creativity and skill. It is not hyperbole to declare God’s Army the most remarkable and important film in the history of Mormon letters. It is a pleasure to honor this extraordinary movie.

Award for the Novel: Margaret Blair Young and Darius Aiden Gray

The Association for Mormon Letters presents an award in the novel for 2000 to Margaret Blair Young and Darius Aiden Gray for Standing on the Promises: One More River to Cross (Deseret Book, 2000).

In One More River to Cross, Margaret Young and Darius Gray have created a haunting, beautifully written, carefully documented story that describes the lives of black saints in the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Pioneer stories often neglect these saints of color. This novel reminds us of their presence and prominence among the early Saints, including close association with the Prophet Joseph Smith and his family. Many black Saints had only recently attained their freedom, and they found some relief in the company of the Saints. We would hope that the early Saints had treated all men as equals, but we learn that-like today-prejudice often appears even among people who should know better.

In the fine people of One More River to Cross, you find a strength and an integrity that served them well in their long trek across the nation-escaping from slavery in Maryland, joining the Saints in Illinois, and traveling across the plains to the mountains of Zion. You’ll likewise find a deep humanity that extended beyond the boundaries of their own culture to those around them, setting an example for our growing, multicultural church today.

One More River to Cross is an important addition to both Mormon and African-American literature, with the story of a people who learned to reach deeply within themselves to find a sense of purpose, a sense of worth, that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring.

Award for Short Fiction: Darrell Spencer

The Association for Mormon Letters presents an award in short fiction for 2000 to Darrell Spencer for Caution, Men in Trees (University of Georgia Press, 2000).

Writers judging writers. Whoever thought this one up? As if one writer could judge another’s work without bias. On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss something that doesn’t actually fall within your own genre or violates one of the seven deadly sins that you’ve taught against all these years. But when the writer is particularly good and competes with your own space, breathes the air that should have been yours, a writer-judge has to swallow pride and say, damn that’s good. Because when you have pulled apart at all the critical edges and the center still holds, what else is there to say?

So this year, the award in short fiction goes to a collection that is totally without humility. You might expect a writer to find one good metaphor or image and play with it for a while like a cat. No economy there. You might expect a writer to have one story out of a collection that easily leads the pack. You might at least expect him to stumble every once in awhile, please.

But not so. The language of this collection never lets up. Every story is a downpour of image, a deluge of metaphor, a torrent of detail. In fact, it is a flood of everything that the judge holds sacred. So what else is there for the judge to do, but to fall and be washed away, to struggle and then cling again, and finally crawl, and gasp, and in a whisper with that last breath of air say-“Awe. I could never have written this.”

Lifetime Award: Richard Cracroft

The Association for Mormon Letters presents an honorary lifetime membership to Richard H. Cracroft.

The problem with honoring Richard Cracroft is that such an encomium deserves the eloquence and good humor that he alone is most qualified to give. To list his many contributions to Mormon letters falls short of conveying his passion, his verve, his back-handed satire and his front-loaded humor. For Richard Cracroft has not simply been a scholar advancing our field; he has been a captain boldly leading us into it-organizing, quelling, and presiding over the skirmishes that have kept Mormon letters such an interesting panorama.

On one front Richard has been a literary scholar, credentialed in American and Western studies, bringing LDS literature under the legitimizing aegis of those more established fields. On another front he has been a popular and accessible critic, explaining the history of LDS fiction to the church at large in the pages of the Ensign or guiding readers of BYU Magazine to the best of current LDS literature. As a kind of literary diplomat, Richard Cracroft has for many years directed BYU’s Center for Christian Values in Literature, bringing LDS literature and criticism into contact with larger, non-LDS audiences through the journal Literature and Belief and bringing together faculty and literary scholars from across campus and the country through colloquia and conferences aptly named “Literature and Belief” and “Spiritual Frontiers.”

But Richard has been no literary pacificist. His passionate loyalty to the Mormon faith and to a conservative Mormon aesthetics has caused him to speak out with typical lack of timidity against backsliding opinions and encroaching secularism. As he concluded his year as president of AML in 1991, for example, he issued a stirring call to LDS writers and critics to return to the core values of an LDS worldview. Whether or not Richard has succeeded in stemming the sophic tide of Mormon literature, his authentic Mormon voice has created no enemies. To the contrary, it has always commanded respect, as all great passion does, especially from someone who so genially combines religious testimony and literary acumen.

Richard has been justly called the father of modern Mormon literary studies, but we might even call him its godfather-substituting for images of violence the force of Richard’s constant good humor and good will as he has presided over a dynasty of contributions to our common cause. Not only did Richard inaugurate the first courses in Mormon literature at BYU, but just prior to the founding of the AML he edited (with Neal Lambert) the first anthology of Mormon literature, A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints. That seminal work has been repeatedly celebrated both for charting a course for future LDS literary studies and for reviving genres and authors otherwise passed over. That early work has paid off in a heritage of renewed attention to the genres and figures that he and Neal Lambert salvaged from obscurity. He has more recently defended “home literature” and popular genres, convincing literary scholars to take seriously what mainstream Mormons are reading. Richard is an advocate and a champion, a literate voice for works considered by some as less literary, both in the past and the present. He is a leader who rouses and rallies his audiences from their stupors of thought, motivating them toward more profound engagement of both their religion and its literary expression.

For his mediation and advocacy as critic, for his countless articles and presentations that have shaped the field, for his inimitable eloquence and humor, and for his many years of tireless reading and writing on behalf of Mormon letters, the Association for Mormon Letters proudly confers upon Richard Cracroft honorary lifetime membership.

Award for Drama: Margaret Blair Young

The Association for Mormon Letters presents an award in drama for 2000 to Margaret Blair Young for I Am Jane (produced for the Genesis Group, March 2000).

Jane Manning James was one of our most remarkable pioneer ancestors. She was a woman of tremendous courage and faith, and she survived personal tragedies that would have destroyed many. And she was black, a former slave. The fact that she was a convert to Mormonism, a pioneer, and a Saint makes her a compelling subject for drama; the fact that she was African-American gives her story resonance and power far beyond the facts of her life history.

Margaret Young, together with her writing partner, Darius Gray, have begun to explore the sad legacy of LDS race relations in what promises to be a groundbreaking trilogy of historical novels, “Standing on the Promises,” book one of which, One More River to Cross was recently published by Deseret Book. Now, with I Am Jane, Young has taken the same body of research and created a theatrical event of the first rank.

Using gospel music from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and employing a free-flowing theatrical style that moves the story through time and space, I Am Jane is an exciting piece of theatre. Although the writing is direct and eloquent, Young has made the difficult choice to mute her own strong, poetic voice and give us instead the voice of her subject. The play’s title is no accident; I Am Jane is clearly intended as a tribute to a remarkable subject, instead of the subjective vision of a masterful artist. And, as such, the play becomes a vehicle not only for Jane James’s testimony but also the vehicle through which we also hear the testimonies of our living brothers and sisters.

The written texts of plays are merely the blueprints for performances, and a fine play needs to be seen and heard, not merely read. This is doubly true for I Am Jane. One cannot mention the power and impact of this text and not mention the dedication and commitment of the members of the LDS theatrical community, black and white, who have sacrificed to present it in so many venues.

I Am Jane is a wonderful play. But by bringing together present and past, black and white, brothers and sisters, this play becomes more than a work of art. It becomes an act of goodness.

Award for Criticism: Benson Parkinson

The Association for Mormon Letters presents a special award in criticism to Benson Parkinson for AML-List.

The first award established by the Association for Mormon Letters in 1978 was in the category of criticism, and no activity can be considered more central to the mission and vision of this body than enabling meaningful conversations. As Wayne Booth has said, Mormonism “will never attain a great artistic culture until we have achieved a great critical culture.” That critical culture is indeed developing, and it has grown exponentially in recent years due to the pioneering vision and indefatigable efforts of Benson Parkinson.

Back in 1995, before e-mail became so widely used, Benson foresaw the utility of establishing an online conversation about Mormon letters and in May of that year inaugurated AML-List. Since that time, hundreds and hundreds of scholars, students, church members, and the casually interested from all over the world have become part of an online community dedicated to analyzing the aesthetic, cultural, pragmatic, and spiritual aspects of Mormon-related literature. The membership of the Association for Mormon Letters has swelled as a direct consequence of AML-List, and our meetings now reflect the influx of many younger writers and critics and the broader variety of literary genres represented by AML-List subscribers. For all but two or three days of the year when our live events take the foreground, AML-List is the Association for Mormon Letters. It has become a clearinghouse for news about LDS literature, a resource for budding writers, a forum for literary experts and lay readers, and a vehicle for announcing and promoting readings, book signings, conferences, and online resources of interest to AML members.

The guiding force behind the list has been Benson Parkinson. As moderator of the list until last year, Benson not only solved many technical problems, especially before e-mail became more established, but he also read every post to the list-literally thousands-to screen out both digressions and diatribes, continually reminding the participants of the goals and texts central to this body. AML-List could have had a shorter and less meaningful life if it had not been overseen by a well-read, good-natured, and articulate critic who knew how to tame this novel medium and turn it to account.

Benson established regular columns, including outlets for news, bibliographies, new creative writing, and especially reviews. To date, some 400 reviews have appeared on AML-List, most of which were made possible through the mediation and editing of Benson Parkinson. The AML’s literary quarterly, Irreantum, was born out of the vision and the community of personnel Benson Parkinson has fashioned over the last five years. As Robert Hogge adumbrated in his recent AML presidential address, the Association for Mormon Letters has been reborn electronically, and Benson Parkinson has been the midwife to that great renewal.

More Information about the AML
In addition to presenting annual awards in literature, the AML publishes the literary quarterly Irreantum, runs the ongoing AML-List e-mail discussion about Mormon literature, and holds an annual literary conference and an annual writers conference. For more information about all the AML’s activities, visit www.xmission.com/~aml. For a sample copy of Irreantum, send a check for $4 to AML, P.O. Box 51364, Provo, UT 84605-1364. To join AML-List, send an e-mail message to majordomo@xmission.com that reads: subscribe aml-list.


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.