Jacqueline is a PhD student at the University of Michigan, where she studies gender, medicine, and politics during the Progressive Era. She also earned an MA from the University of Wyoming and a BA from Mesa State College where she graduated summa cum laude. I am happy to have her contribute to this series. Since she arrived at Michigan, she has demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the American West and a commitment to feminist politics. She is also a ton of fun. Both of these characteristics are on show at her group blog Nursing Clio.
Note: You will find Molly Mormon published by both Tamra Torero and Tamra Norton. They are one and the same. Tamra Torero is the married name of the author.
Like many young, gawky preteens growing up in the 1980s, I had a very intimate relationship with teen literature. Because I didn’t exactly have an open line of communication with my parents, I often sought out these books to help answer my most pressing teenage-angsty questions. Of course, my favorite author was Judy Blume. I still look back fondly at my trips to the local library, searching longingly for any dog-eared copy of a Blume book I might have missed. Some of her novels – Are you there God, It’s me Margaret, Then Again Maybe I Won’t, and It’s Not the End of the World – I must have read at least three times each (I never did get my hands on the coveted, yet controversial, Forever). So when Amanda asked me to be part of this wonderful project of reviewing Mormon YA literature, I was delighted! I did, however, have some serious reservations. After all, I am not a Mormon, nor am I a Mormon scholar. My training is primarily in the history of women, gender, and medicine, and I worried that my feminist proclivities would color my review unfairly. I wanted to be critical, yet respectful. So with excitement and a bit of trepidation, I opened up my dog-eared library copy of Molly Mormon? by Tamra Norton.
Molly Mormon? is set in the small town of Oakley, Idaho where, as our protagonist Molly Chambers puts it, “in some way or another, through marriage, blood, or in some cases just dumb luck, we are all related . . .and we’re all Mormons.” Although Molly’s town demographics are unusual, in many other ways, her life mirrors that of a typical small-town teenager in America. Young nightlife in Oakley consists of Friday night football games, group bowling dates, and high school dances. In fact, most social interactions revolve around trips to the local Dairy Queen and indulgences in French Fries slathered in Fry Sauce (An Intermountain West staple condiment!) Indeed, like many American teenagers, Molly’s world centers on her friends, her family, and her life in high school.
Also like a typical teenager, Molly struggles with how to handle being the victim of bullying and peer taunts. Although her town consists almost entirely of Mormons, Molly’s devotion to her religion has earned her the pejorative nickname of “Molly Mormon” by some of her high school classmates. One of Molly’s most vicious tormentors is Jennavive, a beautiful, popular, and seemingly perfect girl who takes cruel delight in calling attention to Molly’s devoutness. Luckily, with the help of her family, her faith, and her best friend, Shannon, Molly is able to weather the various storms of Jennavive and her clique.
Norton’s goal, however, is not just to document small town Mormon life, but rather she places our protagonist in the middle of several important life crises in which Molly must call on her religious faith in order to, not only sort out her own problems, but also help out her friends (and enemies) along the way. Throughout the book, Molly must navigate high school crushes, female antagonism, peer pressure, sexual temptation, a friend’s teenage pregnancy, and an attempted rape – all pretty heavy and appropriate stuff for young-adult fiction.
I guess the thing I found most surprising about the book is the way in which Norton crafts the character of Molly in a somewhat feminist light. Molly doesn’t bow to female peer pressure, she excels at sports, drives a pick-up truck, and she values intellectualism. Additionally, Molly constantly uses her Mormon faith to help form opinions of the world and guide her through her personal journey. For example, when Molly is having an issue with self-worth prompted by peer taunting, she turns to the twenty-third chapter of Mosiah:
Behold, it is not expedient that we should have a king; for thus saith the Lord: Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another; therefore I say unto you it is not expedient that ye should have a king.
Molly uses this passage to reflect on the accepted social norms of high school, especially the torturous popularity contest that is electing a homecoming king and queen. Her uncertainty of her place within the hierarchy of high school are soothed by a reliance on her religion and tender conversations with her mother. As a parent myself, I would argue that regardless of religious, secular, or political persuasion, it is important that we give our children the tools to help answer these tough life questions – and for Molly, her main tools are the Mormon religion and her family. I admire the way Norton has Molly use her own mind and her own frame of reference to work out these issues.
If Norton’s book centered solely on a girl using her faith and independence to untangle her complicated teenage life, I would gladly wrap up this review a very happy feminist. However, Molly Mormon? veers off in a strange direction that I would be remiss not to address. At every turn in the book, Norton asserts that her antagonists are troubled precisely because they come from non-traditional or non-religious families. For example, as Molly is forced to get to know Jennavive better as part of a class project, we find out that Jennavive only bullies Molly because she comes from a divorced home with an absent dad. Later in the book we find out that Chad, the would-be rapist and teenage father, also comes from a single-parent home, this time with a particularly domineering mother. It seems that the single mother always plays the foil in Norton’s worldview. This trope of bad mother/bad teenager occurs so often thorough out the book, that I found myself wanting throw the book across the room several times.
Certainly, everyone would agree that an unstable family life can and often does lead to significant problems for teenagers, but the assertion that good, upstanding citizens come from two-parent Mormon homes and only rapists and mean girls come from single-parent families is beyond ridiculous. In fact, according to Norton, every bad character trait can be traced back to the breakdown of the nuclear family and the absence of religion. Is that fair? Hardly. Is she accurate? No. Sometimes, wonderful people come from single-parent families, and sometimes absolutely horrific people come from two-parent religious families. I so enjoyed the fact that Molly Mormon? tackles some really intense life questions – I just wished that Morton’s answers were more nuanced. Basically, I wish she had given her young readers some credit for the ability to think in complexities. Oversimplifying the roots of societal problems lessens our ability to think critically about our place in the world and the role that spirituality can play in addressing these issues.
The other big issue I took with Molly Mormon? is that for as smart, talented, and athletic as Molly Chambers is, in the end, her whole life is centered on the goal of a temple marriage. Now, I am the first to admit that I am not well versed in Mormon doctrine. This naiveté, along with my interpretation of Molly Mormon?, leads me to a few fundamental questions that I would love to discuss in this forum: Is it expected that all Mormon women should strive for a temple marriage? In other words, is there a place for feminism (even radical feminism) in Mormonism? What about choosing not to get married or have children? Is it OK or encouraged to teach young Mormons about feminist principles outside the family structure? What would a Mormon feminist YA book look like?
I ask these questions not necessarily to be provocative, but rather, as a non-Mormon feminist scholar, I am really curious about how feminist and non-feminist Mormons frame women’s equality outside of the church’s marriage and family structure. Additionally, as a historian, I would love to hear about how Mormon women have dialogued about women’s rights and feminism throughout history. I look forward to having a fun and productive conversation!