‘Muddy‘ Review: Polygamist Fiction Forces Us to Look Inside Ourselves

The Boss

The Boss

Dean Hughes latest novel, ‘Muddy,’ doesn't shy away from the difficult questions surrounding polygamy that Mormon pioneers—and we—must face.
Deseret Book

Editor’s Note: this review is a guest post by Cory Ward, a student at Brigham Young University

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] few months back, the TWiM Sisters reviewed the Father’s Day edition of the Deseret Book catalogue and highlighted the reasons for their rocky relationship with Deseret Book. In particular, the Sisters found it strange that the cover of the catalogue featured a novel about polygamy, let alone the question of why Deseret Book was promoting this book as a gift for Father’s Day. The Sisters asked the question: should the church (through Deseret Management Corporation of course) be promoting works of polygamous historical fiction? Can’t we pretend it didn’t exist? Isn’t the issue hard enough for most people? Why can’t we just leave the issue in the past? Perhaps it’s best to leave polygamous fiction for HBO.

The Sisters also discussed their conspiracy theory which included the church covertly working through an up and coming YouTube influencer to present sympathetic arguments to youth regarding the topic of Polygamy. They speculated that Dean Hughes, bestselling author of the new historical fiction, Muddy: Where Faith and Polygamy Collide, might also be part of such effort to normalize the discussion in Latter-Day Saint Culture.

Hughes has published more than 100 books. Many of these titles are short novels, seemingly geared towards teenagers. However, in the past couple of decades, he has become one of the more well-known adult historical fiction authors in the church. Children of the Promise, a five-volume series that followed the story of a Latter-day Saint family during World War II as the conflict spread them around the world, is perhaps his best known work. He continued with further series,  Hearts of the Children, set in the turbulent decades of the 1960s and 70s. Most recently his trilogy, Come to Zion, brought readers to the early pioneer era of the church. His novel Midway to Heaven was adapted to a film in 2011.

Muddy, however, is the first novel in a new series that begins in the 1860s. Its title is not only fitting for the setting, but also for the themes presented during this fictional narrative. Although the challenges faced by early members of the church are different than what modern members face, many of their core concerns parallel those found in today’s church.

The story opens church president Brigham Young presiding over a meeting. Perhaps true to history, Young and other church leaders are not always presented in the most flattering way. Young is kind of like a blunt grandfather, giving advice where it isn’t always wanted and cringingly nagging young men to finally settle down and marry. Several times in this story, church leaders like Brigham Young cast guilt on those who may want to deviate from their words and even condemn them for their divergent thoughts.

In an effort to settle the Great Basin and expand Zion and diversify their economy, the church called “missionaries” to leave their settled homes and farms to leave and settle in new territories. Failing to heed the call could spell apostasy and theoretically lead to eternal damnation. Many of these missionaries were called to very inhospitable locations such as southern Nevada. Morgan Davis is one of these fictional pioneers called to settle along the Muddy River (today Moapa Valley).

As it turns out, the land isn’t as fertile as what Brigham had promised. This leads many to question the prophet’s authority. Prophetic fallibility is a constant theme running through the narrative. The reader is forced to ask him or herself whether the Lord really does talk to His prophet. Do Church leaders have the authority and wisdom to manage the lives of church members on information like the location of their houses and the type of crops they should grow? Does the act of church leaders reversing their decisions signify that God has changed his mind? Should church members question “revelation” (something once described by our friend Kurt Francom as a spiritual trump card)?  The settlers along the Muddy had to ask themselves these questions as they tried to heed the word of the prophet while following their own intuition. Muddy is comfortable discussing the potential failures and overreaches of church leaders that may have occurred.

Polygamy, however, presents an entirely new area of exploration for this type of historical fiction. Plural marriage hangs over the mind of the reader from the early pages of the novel. Hughes uses the saints’ discomfort with polygamy as a key plot device, with few of the characters having much praise for the institution. In one example, a plural wife works to take advantage over another. In another, the patriarch of a plural marriage pays more attention to his newer, younger wife. Elsewhere, embattled settlers take new wives while leaving their first temporarily behind.

The novel also highlights and describes that many of the settlers had rocky monogamous relationships. Moving from an established Wasatch Front community to the deserts of Nevada can put strain on any relationship. The addition of polygamy complicates the situation for many. This book does not shy away from discussing the possible downsides that women and men faced when entering into plural marriages. The anecdotal details of polygamous relationships may leave the reader uneasy and unsure whether the protagonists can really face up to the challenges posed at them.

If one were to read the Gospel Topics essay about polygamy in the early church, one may come out with the impression that most polygamous relationships were successful and happy. However, Muddy helps the reader more deeply understand the pain and confusion that these people had to overcome to make their relationships work. The plight of the polygamous wives cannot be ignored or understated, nor is the pain and conflict felt by husbands glossed over. How can the wives manage feelings of jealousy? Can a husband truly love all wives equally? Will the first wife always be the “lead” wife, held in higher regard than those that came latter? Is it appropriate to show affection for one wife in the presence of another? Is it inappropriate to talk about the wives behind their backs? What if one woman is simply more biologically capable of bearing children than another? Readers will ask themselves these questions, and the answers are not always clear, just as they weren’t to those living in plural marriages.

Muddy does a good job at describing the complicated life of those who were asked to live the principle of plural marriage. As Dean Hughes states in the introduction “to understand questions of obedience and agency of nineteenth-century church is like boarding a time machine.” Indeed as L. P. Hartley articulated, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Dean Hughes asks the reader to consider that we really cannot begin to fully understand the minds of those who lived at this time. In a time at which church members were concerned with establishing Zion and following the council of their leaders, it’s not so simple to say that given the same circumstances that we would have responded differently.

Thankfully, Hughes’ prose is engaging and easy to work through, despite the heady subject matter. The plot moves at a quick, but deliberate pace as characters’ actions pile onto one another, driving suspense until the climax. It is, quite frankly, refreshing to read a book of historical fiction, tacitly endorsed by the church, that delves into such topics as plural marriage, prophet fallibility, and the evolving interpretation of the Word of Wisdom at the time. Muddy is a reflection of an evolving church culture that seeks to find truth and discuss nuance in history. These moments of honest reflection overshadow any potential criticism of the plot that could be leveled against the author.

On a personal note, Muddy did more to help me understand the issues behind polygamy at eye level. Having grown up in the church all my life, I have been exposed to the ideas of plural marriage from an early age. I knew of its existence and that I had ancestors that had participated in it. As a teenager, I researched the topic and never really took issue with it the way that many church members do. As I read Muddy, I was confronted with how polygamy may have personally affected the lives of people that practiced it. The novel actually made me reconsider my casual attitude towards the subject. Reading Muddy didn’t make me necessarily feel better about the history polygamy in the church, but it helped me better understand the plausible feelings of those that practiced it, as well as the feelings of church members that do take issue upon learning about it. History is not black and white. More often, there are many shades and the truth is muddier than one may think.

Some in the Church may wish to ignore or forget this aspect of our history. Dean Hughes asks the reader to “Cast away the shame” that we may feel about this practice and the people who practiced it: “It’s time that we honor our heritage rather than duck our heads and change the subject.” In the end, Muddy is a sympathetic view of this difficult topic in church history. However, the reader cannot arrive there without experiencing a rough ride along the way. Ultimately, the reader may come up with the conclusion that the quality of plural marriages depended on those that entered them. For some, it may end badly regardless. Acts of personal sacrifice are essential for any healthy relationship.

At times, it’s difficult to know whether the thoughts and attitudes of the characters are historically plausible or merely a reflection of our twenty-first century values. Although most of the characters in the novel are fictional, Dean Hughes clearly did ample research to support the historical narrative. He lists his sources at the end of the book. However, it would have been nice to have provided more detailed notes to separate fact and fiction. At its best, historical fiction allows the reader to learn history while still being entertained by an engaging plot.

Dean Hughes promises that volume 2 will be entitled, River, which will revolve around the settlement of Orderville, Utah. If you have an interest in experimental American utopian communities, I highly recommend catching up with Muddy. If historical fiction doesn’t peak your interest, look forward for the second volume of Saints, an official narrative history published by the church. It promises a greater degree of historical accuracy and is sure to include more about the topic of plural marriage in the west and how the practice eventually came to an end.

Muddy: Where Faith and Polygamy Collide
Deseret Book, 2019. 384 pages

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