All Is Swell: Trust in Thelma's Way
Robert F. Smith
Barbara R. Hume
Deseret Book , 1999. Hardcover:
Suggested retail price: $15.95 (US)
Audience: LDS audience
Robert Smiths book titles seem to mean one thing the first time you readthem, and something else after you get into the book. Trust is the name of ayoung man who serves a mission in a town called Thelmas Way. Now, does thetitle seem different? Trusts mission experiences are funny, moving,unique, sometimes slapstick, and always entertaining. The story certainlygave me a new admiration for the young people who serve missionsand have tospend all that time dealing with human nature.
As you might expect, the most trying human nature he has to deal with comesin the form of missionary companions. (You may recognize some of your ownformer companions in the elders with whom Trust serves.) He also has what weMormons euphemistically refer to as "growing experiences" in dealing withthe people of Thelmas Way, whose way of life and thought processes arecompletely alien to him. Indeed, Trust does grow considerably during thecourse of the novel, which begins with his mission call (" .& .& . while I hadsort of imagined myself looking sharp in France or stunning in Greece, Iguess He sort of saw me in Tennessee") and ends with the decision he mustmake after he returns home to what our culture calls "civilization."
In one way, this book reminds me of the books of Terry Pratchett, who writeshilarious parodies of traditional fantasy novels. The resemblance comes inthe way I follow people around with the book in my hand, saying, "Listen tothis! This part is really funny!" Smith has a way of popping up with anabsurdly humorous comment in the middle of what might have been a blandscene from another writer. For example, in describing a persons smile, hesays,. "Her smile was like a comet. It only appeared once every hundredyears, and even then it was kind of hard to make it out." A companionwhistles through his nose when he breathes, and Trust is tempted to "pinchthe thing shut." Trust spaces out on the stand during a meeting and realizespeople are waiting for him to speak (something I've always feared wouldhappen to me). Hes been thinking about the rivalry between the benchsitters at the front of the chapel and the chair sitters at the back, eachgroup considering itself spiritually superior to the other. "Most of thebench sitters .& .& . piously considered themselves worthy of sitting so closeto the podium because of their clear consciences, claiming that the chairsitters parked their behinds on the fringes due to some sort of subconsciousunworthiness." (Maybe Ill mark this scene and pass it around in sacramentmeeting. Yes, Im one of the chair-sitters.)
Trust leaves his beautiful-but-selfish girlfriend, who nobody expects towait for him, and lands in Thelmas Way, Tennessee. Everyone in town is anominal Mormon, because Parley P. Pratt once stopped there, got sick fromeating bad ham, and left them a first edition of the Book of Mormon. Theexistence of this book gives the towns inhabitants great pride. A largepercentage of the population is, however, what we now call "less active."Trust vows to bring them all into the fold, but they prove to be achallenging bunch. The first man he meets is wearing blue paint andfeathers. Another has a vision to the effect that "A nickel can appear to bea dime." One woman empties the innards out of the day planner she is givenand stores fishing worms and soil in the zippered case. A man who wishes todisappear allows the town to believe hes been translated. And everyone whois anyone is involved in planning the sesquicentennial pageant for ThelmasWay, a project two years in the making. The preparations for this pageantbecome a unifying plot device for the book; as the plot moves toward theactual staging of the pageant, Trust moves toward becoming a more mature andgenerous human being.
Although the book uses a broadly humorous approach, it isnt simply fluff.As the characters learn, we learn as well. It seems to be a constant inhuman nature to be judgmental of those not like ourselves, and most of ushave to learn over and over to look at people with a more Christ-like view.The experiences of these characters can help. I particularly enjoyed thefact that many characters are dynamicthey change and grow in realistic ways.
I found the book, like another Smith novel I read, to be skillfully written.Smith handles dialog well, his characters are consistent, and his humorousasides make reading it a pleasure. Im accustomed to reading humorous Mormonnovels written by women; I was pleased to see one from a male perspective. Ikeep watching the genre of LDS fiction for breakout talent, and I thinkSmith has a great deal to offer those who enjoy a good story withrecognizeable LDS charactersthe good, the bad, and the ugly. Only the mostprickly among us could be offended by the amiable humor, and goodness knowstheres plenty about the Mormon culture to poke fun at.
The book is billed as the first in the Trust Williams Trilogy. I lookforward to the next in the series.
© 1999 Barbara R. Hume < Barbara@techvoice.com >