I feel a little late to the party in writing this post since a lot of other bloggers have written about and reviewed “ The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance” by Elna Baker, but I just finished the book after reading it non-stop in one sitting. I’ve not been so enamored by a novel in a long time. It was a sincere and true to life take on single life in the church. Most importantly, it as even handed and honest without being bitter and self-loathing.
Last semester I wrote a term paper for a class on Mormon plays focusing on homosexuality and read the full gambit of bitter ex-Mormon drama. The major problem with these plays was that it was hard to see what initial appeal the church held for these individuals through their spirit of contrariness. When Steven Fales in Confessions of A Mormon Boy derisively calls the church a “Socio-economic-tax-exempt-multi-national-corporation posing as the kingdom of God on Earth,” it is clear that he has lost sight of the spiritual good that church membership brought him or brings others. His thoughts are clouded by anger and he can see no shade of nuance in his derisive attitude towards the church.
Elna instead holds a much more nuanced attitude that truly felt rewarding as a reader. Elna describes candid spiritual experiences within which she prayed to the Lord for answers. She describes feelings of spiritual doubt and also epiphanies of clarity. Despite moments in which she is uncertain about her spiritual future, Elna never puts down or downplays the spiritual power in the church. She is deprecating and mocks some of the most absurd aspects of Mormon culture, but never rejects the core spiritual beauty. Because of this fact, this memoir still maintains its wholesome naivety despite a cornucopia of profanity and situations that would make your bishop blush. In some ways this book is noticeable for its omissions. Despite mentioning homosexuality briefly, the book does not deviate into talking about gay marriage or politics at all. In this way, Elna focuses on the core coming of age story of growth and discovery.
I admit that I am not the most qualified to truly comment on the intricacies of Elna’s writing. I am male, only twenty-two and a recent convert to the church. I didn’t grow surrounded by LDS culture and I’ve yet to become overly saturated by the obsessive focus on marriage. As such, so many of the experiences are foreign in many ways. Yet, I could relate strongly to her story. As an overweight child that was mocked for my size, I found her constant thinking about weight and body image to be realistic. I felt that her descriptions of awkward dating experiences were both cuttingly realistic and downright hysterical. I especially appreciated the self-conscious awareness of the little acts of relationship suicide. Moreover, Having been on the other side of the (somewhat) inactive member/ atheist relationship, I kept hoping against the odds that her Atheist lover would have a miraculous conversion: Heck it happened to me!
Elna’s criticism of single church life is spot on. Her depiction of Mormon singles activities and dances is pretty accurate. Actually, individuals of any faith that have been involved in church singles activities should be able to relate. Jewish youth activities were just as awkward except with copious amounts of smuggled alcohol and weed involved. Indeed, the same archetypes, such as Amber Cunningham the girl that is holier than thou and full of constant judgment, are ever present in order denominations. Yet, the unique balance in Mormon life between church callings and social life is illustrated with gusto. The effect our unique marriage theology has on unmarried single women is explored and painfully drawn out,
I have to add my critical comment in regard to the last chapter of the book. It is so woefully unnecessary in story line terms and ultimately leaves the reader with too much tortured ambiguity. :Spoiler Tag: After the ending of a marriage bound relationship and the beautiful realization that “ A document from a patriarch could not tell me how to be happy, I was in charge of my own destiny,” the story could have been concluded in an affirming yet open way. The last chapter of the book details a desperate trip to Africa to chase down the atheist boyfriend that got away. Elna seems out of character here as she goes to great length to try to sexually seduce the male. She lies and pretends that she has left the church in order to win him over. In the end, he rejects her because he knows that sexual activity would be emotionally painful for her and he does not want to cause such pain.
The last page describes Elna’s struggle to choose between the two worlds of New York and Mormonism. Yet, the pages up until this point have to a great degree given the reader hope that a balance can be found between the two. Elna manages to land successful jobs and describes a great number of close non-member and member friends alike. She seems well adjusted for the most part and capable of representing her views. Moreover, the very idea that leaving the church is a real option for her seems to be out of character. Throughout, she has bordered on sexual deviancy, engaged in minor Word of Wisdom violations and questioned her faith exceedingly. Yet, she has also held a steadfast determination of the value and truth of the church in her life. I can’t know the current spiritual status of the author, but this epilogue was pessimistic in contrast to the upbeat tone of the rest of the book. Ultimately it left me feeling conflicted more than anything else that I’d read.