- The Days Are Gods by Liz Stephens
Mark Twain was perhaps the first of outside visitors to Mormon Utah, arriving with pen in hand, eager to give account of the strangeness and oddity of Mormon community life. For a Mormon writer like myself, who was born in Utah but raised and educated on both coasts, I can sympathize with the difficulty of penetrating such peculiar communities that are seemingly out of sync with mainstream America, as I can with the temptation to see them, embedded as they are in the landscape and within their own cultural language, as one might see animals in a zoo—as admirable, perhaps, but also as exotic types, fenced off from the lived reality of the writer and, for that matter, the rest of America. For this reason Mormon readers in Utah rarely enjoy reading accounts of Mormon life in small towns since they are usually written by those who have not lived intimately and lovingly among them and who can’t quite hide their condescension. [End Page 125]
Liz Stephen’s memoir, The Days Are Gods, is pitch perfect. She understands the strangeness of her pursuit of her own version of western mythology—a deep-seated feeling that she must uproot herself from the fast pace of life in Los Angeles and launch her own proverbial return to the land, where she can live simply, where animals and open space are abundant, and where people live rooted lives of simple and shared values. She thematizes the odd relationship this then gives her to the small Mormon community of Wellsville in Cache Valley, where she spends three years. She is not afraid to pose the needed questions about this community—about its homogeneity and its seeming superficial awareness of the pain experienced by those of sexual or ethnic difference in their midst, for example—but her own awareness and sensitivity to difference is not her trump card used against these people. For one, she knows them because she has invested every effort to establish relationships with them. She writes: “I do not think the locals are cute and a charming part of the scenery. I think they carry within them something magic, as do, it turns out, people everywhere who have stayed still in one place long enough to accrue this grace: a deep sense of place that I wish I could beg, barter, or steal off of them” (122). She admires their relationship to the land and to animals, their extraordinary intimacy and trust, the wandering, playing children for whom everyone bears responsibility, and their simple pleasures, values that she also understands that places like Los Angeles, for all their multicultural understanding, have long since lost or never had. And she wants these values for herself and her husband and for their Utah-born daughter, and she is willing to work for them, most notably in her determination to understand the community and its history, in her search for her own genealogical story that stems from agricultural life in Oklahoma, and ultimately in her loving tribute to the land and the people that we fortunate readers of her book have in our hand.
But neither places nor people are stone monuments; they are more like slow-moving rivers of change. For this reason the book stands as a bittersweet memorial to the work it takes to have a sense of place. I say bittersweet not only because Stephens sees the town changing before her eyes, becoming less rooted and less rural every day, but also because ultimately she must leave the town [End Page 126] and the state, a poignant reminder that a sense of place in America today may have to become portable, a way of moving from one place to the next in an increasingly and perhaps irrevocably mobile world. For this reader there is the additional sadness of my home state of Utah losing an outstanding voice. Stephens writes with a light touch, with humor and self-deprecation, and with prose that falls as gently as snow in the still air. The...