Exmormon is about a bunch of young people growing up, many of whom are loosely connected to one another (one character might be the little brother of the wife of another character, for example). What they have is common is that they all start out as Mormons but eventually leave the church. As you might expect, they don't all leave for the same reasons, though there are some common threads. The title notwithstanding, I wouldn't call this a book that's primarily about leaving the Mormon church, or about religion or religious issues. For the most part, this is a story about being young and being Mormon, which is how most of the characters spend most of their time throughout this book. As someone who grew up within the Mormon culture (calling it a "culture" instead of a "religion" being a pretty sure sign of someone who has left the faith, or at least moved to its liberal edges), I found this book to be a real nostalgia trip, and for me, that was a great deal of the pleasure of reading it.
Mormons tend to want to use fiction to promote the faith. For that matter, they tend to want to use all of their life representations to promote the faith. To that end, they tend to censor themselves pretty heavily. An excellent example is the way they think about their personal journals. Mormons are encouraged to keep a personal journal, but always with an emphasis on inspiring their ancestors at some point in the future, or pleasing angels. If you kept a journal mainly for angels and descendants, how complete and honest would you likely be? Chances are, you'd be very selective, mainly emphasizing the good stuff, the times when you lived up the expectations of your social group. While that may make for great Sunday School lessons and angel book clubs, it doesn't much make for good fiction, and that's where Hanson excels: at showing us the plain, unvarnished experience of growing up Mormon, warts and all.
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The book is divided into several sections, each told by a different first-person narrator. A few of the narrators come from a group of kids who know each other in the Midwest, and a few are from a group of people in Utah. Their lives start to intersect when the Midwest kids come out to Utah to go to BYU. I think my favorite of all the stories was one by a teenage girl who gets in trouble with a pretty-boy thespian type during rehearsals for Saturday's Warrior. Since I used to play the Saturday's Warrior music on the piano, and even had a couple small roles in a stake production of Saturday's Warrior (one as the devil, no less!), it was a great nostalgia moment. What I really liked, though, was the way that this story (and the novel generally) brought together some of the many conundrums of growing up Mormon, the interplay between righteousness, repentance, and public image (avoid the very appearance of evil), and, of course, the complicating factor of sex, which is one of the biggest, but most underplayed, factors in growing up Mormon (at least as represented in Mormon art).
At some point in my life, I realized that the Mormon attitude towards sex (no sex outside marriage, no dating before sixteen) actually ends up heightening the sexual tension, as well as the intensity of actual interactions. For example, I remember frequently hearing that a man and a woman should never be alone in a room together (except in the case of a church authority interviewing a woman, though in that case there should still be someone in the next room), because who knows what could happen? It's hard to imagine now that I'm out of the church, but what a strange tension that is--the thought that the very moment you end up alone with someone of the opposite sex, you just might tear each other's clothes off and make it right there. Thinking it almost kind of makes it so (and I'm sure it's happened before), but mainly because of the expectation that's created. I remember that as a young person, the littlest things, slightly brushing against someone or even just shaking hands, could hold so much sexual significance. Once you got old enough, something like kissing was enough to just drive you wild. Hanson does a good job of capturing that tension.
All in all, I think the strength of Hanson's work is to pull back the curtains on growing up Mormon. It's sort of like a novelistic version of what the Italian neo-realists and French New Wave cinema movements did in film: stop turning everything into symbols, or structuring things according to the Aristotelian unities, and just show us what life looks like. Exmormon depicts, in excellent, page-turning detail, what it feels like, moment to moment, and day to day, to grow up as a Mormon and, to a lesser degree, to lose the faith.
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