The Association for Mormon Letters held its annual conference on April 21st, 2012 at Utah Valley University. The keynote speaker was Emeritus Seventy Elder John H. Groberg, accompanied by his wife, Jean.
Elder Groberg urged authors to write from their hearts, and told of the assignment President (then Elder) Monson gave him years ago: to write about his mission in Tonga from 1954-57. Elder Groberg agreed to write the book, but didn’t have it as a high priority. Eventually, Elder Monson set a deadline for him, reiterating the importance of the assignment by saying that the story of faith shown by the Tongans at that time is rare and captures a particular time in church history not likely to be repeated as the internet and other influences spread over the globe.
Elder Groberg fulfilled his assignment, and titled the book In the Eye of the Storm. When director Mitch Davis asked permission to film the story, he was told that if he stayed true to the book, he could do it. Davis changed the title to The Other Side of Heaven. It was Anne Hathaway’s cinematic debut as she portrayed Elder Groberg’s girlfriend, Jean Sabin. “Annie,” as Elder Groberg called her, learned while filming in New Zealand that she had gotten the lead role in Disney’s Princess Diaries. Ultimately, Disney released The Other Side of Heaven as well. Christopher Gorham portrayed Elder Groberg. Both actors called the Grobergs frequently to ask about the reality behind the film so they could do their roles justice.
Elder Groberg told the AML audience about the hurricane he endured as a missionary and assured them, “Starvation isn’t a bad way to die. You don’t do much because you can’t. You don’t have the strength to do anything. You just lie there.” He described watching his ribs become more and more visible, and being able to actually see his heartbeats. He was certain he would die, and summoned all his strength to write a farewell letter. Initially, he was going to address it to his parents, but decided instead to address it to Jean. In it, he asked her to comfort his family. But the letter was never sent. The next day, the ship at last arrived-two months after it was expected-with supplies for the devastated island. Elder Groberg burned the letter.
Joined at the podium by Jean Sabin Groberg, his wife and mother of their eleven children, the two agreed that the film was quite true to life, though Sister Groberg added, “I’m pretty sure John couldn’t dance that well.”
Together, the Grobergs told of a visit they had made for the Church to Cambodia, after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. They had spoken to a General, who asked what they wanted. Elder Groberg explained that they wanted to help the people so they wouldn’t hurt each other anymore. He showed the General a Book of Mormon. After a moment of pondering, the General said, “Yes. This is good. It’s better to use books and love instead of bullets and hatred.”
Sister Groberg described the drive through Cambodia, where she viewed the sites of countless deaths and relentless destruction, and then suddenly saw an oasis in the midst of desolation. It was a testimony to her of the reality of redemption, and the enduring power of hope.
Presenters at the conference came from as far away as Spain and Australia, keeping within the theme “Going Forth into All the World: Mormon Literature in an International Church.” Speakers read essays or papers on the LDS experience in the Baltics, the Ukraine, Argentina, England, Mexico, and Cameroon. Others spoke on the aesthetic of Mormon literature, and what literary parameters and ideals LDS writers should consider and strive for. Two sessions featured poetry from the new collection Fire in the Pasture, and other sessions discussed LDS authors in the past and the present and their impact on the arc of Mormon letters.
As is customary, the Association for Mormon Letters gave awards to works of merit published in the previous year (2011). The year’s awards went to:
Biography: Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism / by Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow. New York : Oxford University Press, 2011
Autobiography: The Place of Knowing : a Spiritual Autobiography / by Emma Lou Warner Thayne. Bloomington, Indiana : IUniverse, 2011
Criticism: The Gift and Power : Translating the Book of Mormon / Brant A. Gardner. – Salt Lake City : Greg Kofford Books, 2011
Film: Sons of Perdition / by Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten
Special Award in Graphical Narrative: Michael Dalton Allred, for a lifetime of comic art
Novel: The Scholar of Moab / Steven L. Peck. – Salt Lake : Torrey House, 2011
Essay: Adam Miller, for the year’s output
Poetry: Fire in the pasture : Twenty-first Century Mormon poets / edited by Tyler Chadwick. – – El Cerrito, California : Peculiar Pages, c2011
Short Story: David G. Pace, American Trinity,@ Dialogue 44.2 (Summer 2011): 161B76.
Short Fiction: Wasatch : Short Stories and a Novella / by Doug Thayer. – Provo, Utah : Zarahemla, 2011
Smith-Pettit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters: Marilyn Brown
Special Award in Literary Journalism: Andrew Hall
Young Adult Novel: Variant / Robison Wells. – New York : HarperTeen, 2011
Marilyn Brown Novel Award: Paul Colt for Boots and Saddles: A Call to Glory
Honorary Lifetime Membership: Gideon Burton
For any who would like to help plan and carry out the next conference, please visit www.aml-online.org.