Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s 2013 book, Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels unpacks the popularity of Amish romance novels among evangelical women. Although often dismissed as escapist fiction, women’s fiction, fluff lit, or all of the above, Weaver-Zercher argues that evangelical women turn to Amish romance novels for a variety of reasons, many of which have to do with the hypermodern and hypersexual world in which readers live.
This post isn’t about that, however. Rather, my interest was piqued by a footnote, in which the author catalogues writers who are writing similar stories, but in different settings. You have your Amish romance novels, but also your Mennonite, and Shaker, and Quaker romance novels. And to my surprise, apparently also Mormon romance novels. I immediately dove to Google the author she mentioned, Allison Pittman, because heck yeah, that is something I want in on! I’m not quite sure what I was imagining, but perhaps hardy pioneer women finding love in unexpected places (you could even keep calling them ‘bonnet rippers!’), or a story about a chaste Mormon girl in a Gentile world, whose lonely heart is turned to love when she moves into a new ward and meets that ward’s resident bad boy (faux bad boy, obviously, because Mormon with a temple recommend). Or, just picture this: dark, handsome RMs, and fresh-faced co-eds, and all the pressure to marry you can find on a BYU campus. Doesn’t that sound like a bad novel just waiting to happen?
I mean, after all, Amish romance novels aren’t really about the Amish–they’re set in a nostalgic, imagined past, one that is more concerned with seeming than actually being authentic. There’s plenty in Mormonism, past or present, that could serve in similar ways. But from what I can tell, Pittman’s novels have more in common with 19th century anti-polygamy tracts than sentimental romances in the Amish style. The blurb for For Time and Eternity, part one of a super-originally titled series, “Sister Wives,” reads:
All Camilla Deardon knows of the Mormons nearby is the songs she hears floating on the breeze. Then she meets one of them–a young man named Nathan Fox. Never did she imagine he would be so handsome, so charming, especially after Mama and Papa’s warnings to stay way. Though she knows she should obey her parents, Camilla can’t refuse her heart. But even Nathan’s promises cannot prepare her for what she will face in Utah.
A reviewer writes on Amazon that the novel “was compelling, and explained how one woman became involved in the Mormon faith and forced into pologomy [sic] unaware. Mormons will not like this book, but it has many truths to it, and explains … the REALITY of having ‘sister wives'” (emphasis original). A Goodreads reviewer writes about how she “walked away from the book understanding … how we as Christians should show Compassion [sic] on those who believe in a false religion.” Okay then.
Of course, outsiders proclaiming the truth about them Mormons is nothing new–see the rationale for every sensationalist book written about Mormonism, ever, or the heralding of Jon Krakauer, or even every third question I get when people hear I’m studying Mormonism without being a Mormon myself. And in Thrill of the Chaste, Weaver-Zercher writes of a specific subgenre within Amish romances, in which the Amish aren’t valorized for their simple and honest lifestyle, but exposed as not truly Christian, but rather a cult. Here, too, an author professes to be able to tell the ‘truth’ about a religion from the outside.
I’m curious, though, whether there are even Mormon equivalents of Amish romance novels–books written by outsiders that, while perhaps not overly concerned with accuracy, nevertheless showcase a genuine appreciation for the culture. Can they even exist, or is today’s post-Mormon moment still too suspicious of all things Utah? I’m tempted to say the latter, but I’d love to be proven wrong.
 There’s usually some joke about polygamy, like at a conference last summer, when someone saw my engagement ring and then asked how many husbands I had, “since you’re living in Utah.” Then there’s generally something about Under the Banner of Heaven and a reference to “real” Mormon history, and can’t forget the quick, suspicious, “what do the Mormons think about that?” as if ‘the Mormons’ are a) a monolithic bloc and b ) will show up as a band of avenging angels (or Danites) and smite their opponents. Of course, the number one question from the Mormon public is, “when will you be baptized?” so maybe there’s no winning here.