Over on a Mormon-themed message board, apologist Russell C. McGregor has posted a “review” of my book, Heaven Up Here. I’m not in the habit of responding to book reviews, but in this case, the review reveals much more about the reviewer than about my book:
I had the privilege of reading this book a number of years ago, in electronic format. I don’t know how closely the version I read matches the published version, but here are my impressions of it.
There is a tendency for people to praise books critical of the Church of Jesus Christ for their “honesty,” with the subtle insinuation that more positive views are somehow less honest. A number of people, not kindly disposed towards the Church, have offered that praise to this book. However, in this instance, I am inclined to agree. I think the book is indeed an honest one, if only for the reason that, to informed Latter-day Saints, it shows the author in a highly unflattering light; which is not usually a symptom of fabrication.
In the popular LDS phrase, a missionary is encouraged to “lose himself” (or herself) “in the work.” I have never seen a missionary reminiscence in which the work was more palpably lost in the missionary. So much of the book is dominated by expositions of the author’s internal state (often literally, as he treats us to medically detailed descriptions of his digestive woes) that it is easy to forget that any actual missionary work is even happening.
Heaven Up Here is, in large measure, a story of outraged privilege. We are never allowed to forget the author’s connection to the first generation of the Church, and the impression that he somehow deserves better treatment because of his ancestry is never far away. In the end, we are left with the clear sense that the Church cruelly abused this missionary by expecting his pampered American digestive system to cope, for eighteen whole months! with food of considerably better quality than what most of the people around him had to eat for their whole lives.
However, those people are rarely of very great importance. They are largely extras in a show that has been written, produced and directed by its star performer.
Perhaps the most disappointing episode recounted in the book was the case of the illiterate cook. The author and his companion had a lady who cooked meals for them. (Doesn’t everybody?) The quality of her cooking was not great, and the author subsequently found out why: she couldn’t read. Thus, she couldn’t follow a recipe, and simply guessed what ingredients to use, and what their quantities should be.
One can easily see how disastrous such cooking efforts would be; but once Elder Williams found the cause of the problem, he had an opportunity to devise a solution that would not only provide him and his companion with nutritious, palatable meals, but also benefit the lady and her family. He and his companion could have devised a program of teaching her to cook from the cookbook she was trying to use (after all, non-literate people are often very adept at memorising information and procedures) and, extending from that, how to read. This would have been a win-win solution. Here was a chance for Elder Williams to make a difference to his cook and her family; a chance to do some meaningful service (and even personally benefit thereby!) A chance, in Tolkein’s words, to “show his quality.”
So what did he do?
He fired her, and engaged another cook instead.
Without a word of apology or regret, he looked after el numero uno. Nothing could be more important than this American princeling’s pampered tummy.
Just in case anyone is wondering, I’m not a fan.
Anyone who has read my book knows that this hardly reflects anything in the book. Suffice it to say that our first cook was not “fired” for being a poor illiterate who couldn’t make food palatable to our “pampered tummies.” We got another cook because the lady in question was charging us twice the going rate and providing poor-quality food that was making us quite ill (my companion and I both had amoebas and 4 types of intestinal worms, and I had lost 30 lbs., dropping to a weight of only 114 lbs.). Only after failing to help her improve did we find someone else in the branch to cook for us.
But I figured something out about the “review.” Every complaint Mr. McGregor has about the book, and every misreading, intentional or not, comes from the beginning of the book. In short, he didn’t read the whole book, and it’s obvious. That’s why he didn’t realize I served a two-year mission; I was called for eighteen months, but you’d have to read about a third of the way through the book to learn that I was given the opportunity to extend my mission to two years, and I did so (clearly, because I felt my privilege was so outraged that I needed six more months of it). That’s why he thinks I constantly remind readers that I am a descendant of Frederick G. Williams, even though I mentioned it only once, again at the beginning, and in connection with feeling like being the first in several generations of Williamses to serve a mission was a tribute to him. That’s why he talks about my digestive issues as if they are a constant presence through the mission, but they aren’t. Again, they were the most severe during the first few months of my mission, when I got really sick and lost 30 lbs (otherwise known as having an upset tummy unbecoming of a spoiled princeling).
The only conclusion I can reach is that he read about one-quarter to one-third of the book, just enough to find a story he could spin in a way to demonize a 19-year old who later grew into me. I don’t know if I should find this pathetic or hilarious. Eh, probably both.