Published in February 2019 issue of The Historical Novel Review
The poorly-defined middle ground
Our world is neither black nor white, which might be why we tell stories about the areas of gray. The Glovemaker is a world full of such in-betweens: neither, but, if only. The story is set in 1887 in the Utah Territory, and the Mormon Church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or LDS for short) is going through upheaval as polygamy is outlawed by the US government.
Author Ann Weisgarber uses the conflict between church and government as monolithic opponents which catch regular people between them, not unlike the geographical canyon walls among which the protagonists of The Glovemaker have settled. Deborah is one of the narrators, a good Mormon woman, waiting for her husband to return from his working travels, but he is overdue. When the first stranger comes knocking on her door seeking help, she hesitates. She is, as is repeatedly commented on, a woman alone. The subtext is not that she is incapable of caring for herself, but rather, that the men around her – strangers, specifically – might prey upon her while her husband is absent. But as the characters reveal secrets and discuss, men are the center of the conversation, removing agency from the women. This creates a situation in which women are never to blame, and the men seem to assume that part of femininity is a state of perennial, passive victimhood.
Removing the agency and opinion from half of the characters – indeed, half of the world – creates an In-Between place, as the book puts it. This middle ground is where the women are central and vital but lack the standing to make decisions about their own lives with any sort of credibility. This is seen not just in the Mormon world, but also in the Gentile world, and men are losing their lives over it.
The town of Junction, now called Fruita, is a real settlement located in what is now Capitol Reef National Park, where the orchards planted by the Mormon settlers still bloom. Visitors can pick the fruit, look at the Native paintings on the walls of the canyon, and stroll along the boardwalk looking at birds. For her research, Weisgarber was able to look at the historical archives at Capitol Reef, giving her a window into the world of these people.
Weisgarber is not Mormon herself but was initially intrigued by the location of the settlement. She found that the actual settlers there “identified as Mormons, but the historical evidence implied that they didn’t practice their faith as the church expected.” Acknowledging that she knew very little about the LDS beliefs before writing The Glovemaker, she had to research the faith as well as the location. But culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and Weisgarber notes that “LDS history is American history, and any time I look below the surface, there are surprises.”
These surprises found their way into The Glovemaker. One such, “the federal- and state-sanctioned persecution of Mormons,” is the external plotline. While the US is famed for its freedom of religion, in reality, not all religious practices are equal. The Glovemaker does not take on the ethical question of polygamy, keeping a firm stance in the middle. The opening pages of the book cite the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, which disincorporated the LDS church, giving the US government the authority to seize its assets, as well as imprison men who practiced polygamy. Three years after this novel is set, the church issued its “1890 Manifesto,” ending the practice of polygamy, and the Utah Territory finally achieved statehood the same year, a reward from the federal government for conforming.
Weisgarber also incorporated the second surprise, that “by the 1880s, approximately only 25% of the men practiced polygamy.” The married couple in her novel, Samuel and Deborah, seek an In-Between place for their own spiritual practice. While the characters would never publicly distance themselves from the church, they do so physically, both not wanting to engage in polygamy, or in the highly regimented roles dictated by the community in which they were both raised. “In the novel, I made the assumption the characters had doubts but couldn’t bring themselves to completely break away from the church. They were in-between, straddling the narrow, poorly-defined middle ground, not wanting to choose sides.”
We often keep ourselves in this “poorly-defined middle ground,” in order to navigate family relationships, workplace drama, or even small-talk at the grocery store. For those raised in any religious community, to turn away from a part of the church means turning away from family. The risk of personal doubt carries an incredibly high price. But does not picking a side mean that there is a moral weakness? We like picking sides; it gives resolution to our stories, shapes our narratives of Good versus Evil. But not every conflict is so high-handed. And not every protagonist needs to choose one or the other. Indeed, if one lives in an In-Between place, as Deborah’s husband says, “where the mountains ease into hills and where those hills slide into low swells,” what is the point? Neither side has jurisdiction.
Weisgarber writes, “As the writing progressed, it became clear to me that people who are in-between see the world from all angles. It’s a difficult position since they usually don’t belong to one side or the other. They are the people who negotiate, who settle disputes, and who are the peacemakers.”
High-minded moralists can make for good heroes or villains, but regular folk are compelled to stay in the In-Between. So much of this novel is about walking the middle path, that in the end, the meditation on the concept of slushy neutrality becomes a clear thought on the desire for isolation and separation. Ultimately, one can only remain an outsider if sides are not taken. In the end, Wesigarber sees The Glovemaker as “a story about the search for peace.”
Find original review publication at the Historical Novel Review.
You can find Ann Weisgarber on her website.
The purpose of these reviews can be found on this earlier blog post.