Saturday, December 24, 2011

Book Review: The Scholar of Moab by Steven L. Peck

Title: The Scholar of Moab
Author: Steven L. Peck
Enjoyment Rating: 8/10
Referral: I read a review on By Common Consent
Source: Ordered new from Amazon
Books I've read this year: 156

I've been sitting here at the computer for a long time, wondering what to say about this book. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not trying to look for a nice way to say that I didn't like this book, because I really did like it. But mostly, I'm impressed with the ambition of the book. Even though its length, at just about 300 pages, isn't epic, it feels epic in scope. I think part of the reason is because the book, which centers on the story of Hyrum Thayne, the high school dropout turned "scholar," encompasses so many different voices. Readers not only get Hyrum's private journal, misspellings and malapropisms and all, but they also hear poems from his wife, Sandra, poems and letters from his gal-on-the-side, Dora, letters from one half of the conjoined twins who worked as cowboys in the LaSal mountains outside of Moab during Hyrum's stint blowing stuff up for the government, notes from the unnamed redactor, and likely letters, transcripts or other written work from other voices. I had so much fun reading all of these different voices, and Peck's ability to write from the perspective of so many different characters was really impressive.

The Scholar of Moab is also a book that manages to walk the fine line between satirizing the people of Moab and embracing them. On the back jacket, Scott Abbott says, "It’s satire of the best sort: biting what it loves, snuggling up to what it hates," and that's an assessment that I heartily agree with. Sandra and her ward members are both ignorant and tender, and my reaction to Hyrum vacillated from hate to love and back again several times over the course of the narrative.

One of the most interesting things about The Scholar of Moab is that it's possible to read it as realistic fiction where an astounding number of coincidences come together to create delightfully weird and tragic situation. But it's also possible to read it as magical realism. I'm not sure that Peck comes down decisively on either side of the issue.

The Scholar of Moab is rich, nuanced, and complicated. It expects a lot of its readers, and I appreciate that there is a growing body of books out there by and for (but not only for) Mormons that are embracing these complexities.  

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