The Writing on the Wall by Dean Hughes
Reviewed by Jennie L. Hansen
“The sixties and seventies were times when families were torn apart and people tended to split into factions. It’s not an easy time to write about,” Dean Hughes said in the preface to his new series Hearts of the Children, concerning the time period when the series takes place. The first volume, The Writing on the Wall, introduces that turbulent time with a “coming-of-age” approach to a time when the self-absorption of a nation, the church, and individuals began to give way to a broader social awareness. It was a time when peace and prosperity were not enough.
In the past, my major complaint about LDS fiction has been that even those novels intended for an adult audience tended to be geared more toward the youth market, and that is what I expected from Hughes’ Children of the Promise series. I’ve long been familiar with his books written for children and have considered him an excellent writer-for children. Even though he teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University, I was skeptical of his ability to write for an adult audience. It took my son-in-law a long time to convince me to give Children of the Promise a try, and it was with surprise and appreciation that I discovered Dean Hughes really had written a book for adults. As I read I came to admire Hughes’ research, attention to detail, sense of timing, and his wonderful storytelling ability. Even more, he gained my respect by never sugar-coating the horrors of war, glorifying Mormon soldiers, or resorting to crude, profane language, and by making the battlefields, the torn lives, and the struggles of conscience graphically real. More than once, in speaking to various literary-minded groups, I’ve since pointed to Hughes as possibly the best LDS fiction author currently writing. It was, therefore, with great anticipation that I approached this first novel in his sequel series, Hearts of the Children.
It has been said by both writers and critics that history can’t be written by those who lived it. History needs the buffer of time to be seen objectively, yet Hughes manages to portray the era well from several significant points of view. Readers who grew up outside of Utah, particularly those with rural backgrounds, may find it difficult to identify with Hughes’ affluent, urban young protagonists, but they, too, will recognize a kind of naive innocense that prevailed throughout the wards and stakes of the church at that time. Never before in the history of the church had there been a whole generation grow up in peace and prosperity, untried by persecution, war or economic hardship.
The first volume in Hughes’ new series sets the stage for the books to follow and is not a story complete in itself. It is the “writing on the wall,” the warning, of what is to come. I suspect my vague sense of dissatisfaction in reading the book was the author’s intent. He wanted to show us a generation that grew up in a world completely changed by the war their parents fought, where testimonies had been formed from habit, not tried by the refiner’s fire, and where life revolved with ease around the wards and stakes, safely isolated from the world by the Utah mountains. He wants readers to sense that when the strictures and customs of previous generations were stripped away, parents of this post war period were left unsure of how to parent, and children were left with too many things and too few responsibilities. Brother Hughes does this by introducing four central characters who at first appear to be naive or shallow, then shows the epiphany moment when each becomes dissatisfied with his or her own level of commitment, whether it is to the gospel, social justice, or liberty. Here’s where we see “the writing on the wall,” the hints of what is to come that will reshape both the nation and the church.
This book picks up the Thomas family in 1961 when young Gene, son of Alex and Anna from the previous series, is sixteen. It follows the four oldest grandchildren of President and Sister Thomas beginning in their late teens. Gene is the amiable studentbody president, captain of all the athletic teams, and heartthrob of East High School in Salt Lake City. Life is good and success comes easily. He’s bright, but doesn’t spend much time doing deep thinking, except when prodded by his some-times girlfriend, Marsha. His vague plans for the future include serving a mission, attending the University of Utah, and becoming the President of the United States. His mission call is to Germany where his father served and his mother was born and raised. It also is where he discovers some hard truths about life and his testimony.
Kathy, a year younger than Gene, is the daughter of Wally and Lorraine. She is a judgmental, tactless, strident idealist who jumps on the bandwagon for causes great and small; she adores her Aunt LaRue, who has never quite gotten her act together, and becomes embroiled in the fight for civil rights in the South. She is concerned about the inequities thrust on black people and on her handicapped younger brother, but is intolerant of any views that differ from hers. Before she can be of any real use to the civil rights effort, she has to recognize her own failure to see people instead of causes. She also has to learn what price she is willing to pay for her beliefs.
Diane, two years younger than Kathy, and the daughter of Bobbi and Richard, just wants to have a good time, wear nice clothes, and grow up to be a wife and a mother. She yields to heavy petting with her boyfriend and is still naively confident she can convert him to the church. She doesn’t like studying or school, and assumes little responsibility for anything. There’s a subtle hint toward future feminist issues and to the equal rights question with the blatant proposition that Diane doesn’t need to be smart or educated to become a wife and mother.
Hans Stoltz is not really a Thomas, but the son of Anna Thomas’s younger brother Peter and his wife, Katrina. Caught up in the postwar division of Germany, the family is trapped in East Germany when the communist-controlled sector walls itself off from the western world. Peter wants the nice things and opportunities his American cousins take for granted, but an ill-fated, selfishly motivated attempt to escape dooms him to an inferior education and a life of hard work, devoid of challenge. He, more than any other of the children of that generation, sees his future dreams as something that he has to work to achieve. At a young age, hardship forces him to make choices, examine his motives, and question his faith in God, his parents, and the political climate around him.
Each of the four young people face the first trials of their faith as their beliefs run up against the hard realities of life. They don’t sail through these challenges unscathed nor unquestioning. The three young people who grew up in Utah face a world that extends beyond their mountains and the church around which their lives have been centered. They are the first of a generation that grew up to question the values and traditions of previous generations that no longer seem pertinent to them in their new world. They are not forced to defend their beliefs from a hostile world as much as from their own doubts and questions.
There are many themes introduced in The Writing On The Wall that will be interesting to watch unfold through the remainder of this series. Significant among these are the different faces of freedom, the emergence of the Church as a world religion, and the role of family in this new world. Some minor annoyances surfaced, such as the contrived attempt to provide an authentic cultural background for the teenagers through lists of popular songs and references to brand name clothing that goes beyond casual mention. There is also a tendency to be too politically correct. But these are petty points compared to the grand scope of comparing a generation who went away to war and came back to a world they didn’t know and a generation who grew up to enter a fragmented world they weren’t prepared to face. This is the generation who considered Utah the Church and suddenly discovered themselves in the midst of a world religion. They are the ones who were forced to understand that with the spread of the gospel to the world, the problems of the world were now the Church’s problems.
Some readers may be uncomfortable with Brother Hughes’ sentiments about this controversial time, but that is one of the hazards of writing about recent history. Many of us were there, as was he. We remember Kennedy’s assassination, we know where we were and what we were doing when the official declaration on the priesthood was given, we knew the Berlin wall, we heard Nixon’s resignation speech, and we had our own opinions about Vietnam, civil rights, and American politics. Drugs, flower children, and war protesters all play a part in our memories of that era. We were there, but we might not remember those years quite the way the Thomas family lives them.
The content of this series will bring a different level of criticism than that given to Children of the Promise. The first series dealt with people, readers could easily identify as heroes. This second series concerns a time when no one was quite sure who the heroes were, or even if there were any. That was the challenge of the sixties; there were so many viewpoints, so many questions. Hughes has taken on a formidable task, but The Writing on the Wall shows promise that he can carry it off. It will be an exciting adventure to revisit this period of history with him.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.