For the Strength of the Hills
Reprinted in Irreantum (in two parts), Winter 2000-2001 andSpring 2001 issues
[Reprinted in Irreantum (in two parts), Winter 2000-2001 andSpring 2001 issues.]
There's a category in speculative fiction known as alternativehistory. Many of the best sf&f writers have been known to play thegame. What would happen if the Nazis had won World War II? If someonewent back in time and stopped Booth from assassinating Lincoln? Or --in the case of this story by Mormon author Lee Allred -- if the UtahMormon settlers, using repeating rifles developed by Jonathan Browning(father, presumably, of the famous gunsmith John Moses Browning),managed to hold off Johnston's Army for three years in Echo Canyon --until, in fact, the larger world intervened in the form of the CivilWar?
Allred's lengthy story -- technically a novellette or novella, I'm notsure which -- is superbly crafted, and seems (to be the best of mylimited historical knowledge) thoroughly researched. The story is toldfrom the point of view of a Captain Beck, who commands SidneyJohnston's artillery. He's a likeable character, a man ofintelligence and integrity who despises Johnston but serves out of asense of duty, despite some personal sympathies with the Mormons whomhis sister has joined.
At the time the action starts, the army has been blocked in thecanyons for three years. New supplies have arrived, however, includinglighter repeating artillery and more men. Anxious that Robert E. Lee,who is sailing around the Horn to California with troops to attack theMormons from the West, will get to Utah before he does, Johnstonorders another attack, only to find the canyons all but abandoned andthe Salt Lake Valley burned to the ground by the retreatingMormons. Johnston, Lee, and Grant (who has meanwhile attacked from thesouth) meet in the ruins of Salt Lake, only to face the prospect of anongoing guerrilla war. And then Porter Rockwell comes in withnewspapers from the east, telling of South Carolina's secession.
It's a fascinating tableau. Johnston is buoyant over thesecession. Grant is firm for the Union. Both try to woo the Mormons,through Rockwell, to come in on their side. And Lee is troubled,uncertain where his duty lies. Allred has Peck say something that maynot be true, but that we all have to wish could have been: that Lee,making a choice for the Union, could himself bring Virginia along withthat choice. The story ends with Lee walking amid the granite blocksof the temple lot, trying to decide "whether those granite blockslying there are the unfinished foundation of a new nation; or thetombstones of a foolish, lost cause."
This story has many excellences. I haven't studied the historicalrecord to know if Johnston is as thoroughly slimy as Allred depicts --lying and scheming and murdering through "duels" anyone who challengeshim (including, in one scene we are shown, George McClellan) -- but ingeneral, the story seems to have an authentic "feel": one of thehardest things to get right in an alternative history scenario. Youget the sense that you're meeting Lee, and Grant, and above all theordinary men, in a setting that's a bit different than the one we know-- but that they remain themselves as they might have been in thatdifferent setting.
It's tempting to try to imagine how the Civil War itself -- and Mormonhistory -- would have been different in the scenario Allred envisions:with virtually the entire army (and its best commanders) off in Utahwhen the secession occurs, and with the Mormons possessing the abilityto block anyone from swift passage back up the canyons and across theplains to rejoin the main body of the nation. Would the chances havebeen increased, in this case, for a Mormon-controlled Deseret, in orout of the Union? Allred merely tempts us with these possibilities;still, it's precisely this kind of speculative twist that adds flavorto this variety of tale.
There's a deftly understated personal story here as well. Peck ordershis men to rescue an injured Mormon, pinned under his dead horse. Theyengage in some conversation before the man, Reddick, succumbs to hiswounds. Then, overseeing Reddick's burial, Peck finds a picture of hisown sister in the man's locket. Talking to one of his own menafterwards, Peck asks, "He was my brother-in-law. Is that what theArmy is for? Brother against brother?"
The Civil War was, in many ways, the world's introduction to thehorrors of modern war: devastating artillery used against men, withmassive losses; scorched-earth policies (remember Sherman's march tothe sea); and utter destruction as the price of a war not simplybetween two nations but between two ways of life. In this story,Allred makes the Mormon War a bitter foreshadowing of all that -- onewhich its principals can clearly see. As Reddick tells Peck beforehis death, "It's our turn now, but yours is coming. Mark it well. Thisis your future, too." Or as Peck puts it to Lee: "Do you want Virginiato end up looking the way it does outside that window? Do you want awar of brother against brother, father against son?"
On top of all this, what makes this story perhaps the best single workof speculative Mormon fiction I have read is Allred's skillful drawingtogether of the twin themes of slavery and polygamy, and histhought-provoking linking of the causes of Deseret and the AmericanSouth. As Allred's Lee puts it, "This new war we're about to fightwill still be over the same questions this unfinished war here isbeing fought over. Who holds the higher allegiance: one's people orone's nation? Do you have the right to live in a manner your neighborfinds morally repugnant? Does he have the right to prevent you?"
There remains, of course, the significant difference that -- as Allredhas Porter Rockwell argue -- "At least us Mormons enter our 'peculiarinstitution' by free consent -- we don't require chains or whips. Wehave no auction blocks." Still, this story brought home to me in a wayI had never experienced before just how closely linked the Mormontroubles with the United States were with the conflict over slaveryand the Civil War, both ideologically and historically. (Yet anotherspin could be brought into the mix by adding the early Saints' effortsto get the Federal government to intervene on their behalf within thestate of Missouri, which was essentially denied on the basis ofstates' rights.) Reading Allred's story made me consider both Mormonand American history from a different perspective.
If this is the sort of thing you enjoy at all, I highly recommend thisstory. Even if it isn't your cup of tea, if you want to know whatspeculative fiction can contribute to Mormon literature, you need toread this.
© 2001 Jonathan Langford < email@example.com >