Asking the Questions
Reviewed by Emily Shelton Poole. Dialogue, Spring 2017.
In her full-length debut, Pigs When They Straddle the Air: A Novel in Seven Stories, Julie J. Nichols presents the interconnected lives of various women living in Salt Lake City over a span of thirty years, mostly during the 1970s and 1980s. Each of the seven stories focuses on a different main character until their lives become so entangled that the narratives converge in tragedy, heartache, and eventual healing. Some of these stories appeared previously in other publications, including Dialogue.
Nichols wrote the stories as part of her dissertation for a PhD in English from the University of Utah. Two of the stories were controversial enough that Nichols lost her position as a creative writing instructor at Brigham Young University. I speculated, briefly, about which stories could have brought about Nichols’s dismissal from BYU—was it the lesbian teaching Primary or the woman calling on Heavenly Mother to bless a nearly-drowned child? The reference to abortifacient herbs? Or the faith healing without the official exercise of the priesthood? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Each one touches, to some degree, on the fringy edges of Mormonism, and while the stories are ction and easy to dismiss in an academic way, the existence of actual people on those fringes is a far different matter to consider. In their first iterations, she says, they were unrelated, but many explored “the difficulties of being an educated, unorthodox woman in Utah Mormon culture.”2
Unorthodox doesn’t adequately convey the breadth of Mormon experience portrayed in Pigs When They Straddle the Air: faithful, practicing LDS Adela; earthy, mystical, lesbian Riva and her partner, Nina; Riva’s daughter, Katie, caught between her traditional LDS father and decidedly non-traditional mother; Riva’s sister-in-law, Suzanne, conservative but curious; Annie, a poet and faith healer, unofficially adopted by Riva and Nina as a child; rigidly polygamous Jean and Peggy, and Peggy’s young daughter Leeny; and even Riva’s grandmother-in-law, portrayed only through her journals. Nichols approaches the lives and choices of each woman with the eye of an omniscient but benevolent observer, completely devoid of judgment or aspersion. Individual devotion is, Nichols asserts, exactly that: shaped individually by unique combinations of cultural bias and life experience.
While Nichols’s clear-headed and even-handed approach to her portrayals of Mormon life may provide interesting fodder for book club discussions, it doesn’t actually serve the characters that well. They are known to the reader, but developed deeply only in narrow trenches, with crystalline, efficiently emotive prose, while the more pedestrian aspects of their lives—the very details that might cause a character to imprint more memorably on the reader—are ignored in favor of the more sensational characteristics that make them different. I find this interesting in and of itself: Nichols’s purpose seems to be to demonstrate the Venn diagram overlap among all of these different Mormon lives, but the only parts she really uncovers are the isolating ones.
Because of this lack of full character development, the character list at the beginning of the book is absolutely essential to keeping all of the relationships straight. I found myself drawing family trees with connection lines across generations, trying to cement those relationships in my mind; and what is either a math error or a typo became the subject of a minor obsession as I struggled to reconcile the age difference between two characters.
At its heart, though, Pigs When They Straddle the Air is about ideas, and the characters are more like archetypes of unorthodoxy who exist to serve a philosophical end. All people are connected, and the connections are strong but mysterious to both reader and characters. Nichols also wants readers to think about the big questions, some of which cannot be answered: Is there room in the Mormon community for a broader definition of devotion? Can we embrace those who doubt with love rather than judgment? Does an acknowledgment of Heavenly Mother undermine the priesthood or strengthen it? Is Mormonism, at its root, any less mystical than other religious traditions?
Nichols deftly draws threads of connection between the traditional, conservative Mormon community and the souls who inhabit the gray area around the edges. Her characters, like the Gadarene pigs alluded to in the title, who received devils cast out of a madman by Jesus, straddle the air in that weightless space between choice and consequence, doubt and devotion, tradition and change. Faithful people straddle worlds and traditions and question their own motives and purposes every day. As Nichols herself said in her profile on Mormon Scholars Testify, “Questioning does not have to lead to divorce or mayhem.”3 Clearly, for Nichols, compassion and understanding are essential elements of faith, especially when helping others to define theirs. Pigs When They Straddle the Air may not hold the answers, but it does, at least, ask the questions.
2. Julie J. Nichols, “About the Book,” http://www.juliejnichols.com/ about-the-book/
3. Julie J. Nichols, Mormon Scholars Testify, May 2011, http://mormonschol- arstestify.org/2445/julie-j-nichols