States of Deseret. William Morris, editor. Peculiar Press, 2017. Alternative history short story anthology. 109 pages, $3.00.
Reviewed by Barrett Burgin
Last year I presented this scenario to my classmates: what if the Civil War had never ended and Deseret had become its own nation? This idea of an alternate Mormon history really took hold on a classroom of BYU Media Arts students. Later, I found myself similarly fascinated while reading the new alternative history story collection States of Deseret. There is, perhaps, something inherently interesting to Mormons about reimagining our own brief history. Whether it’s a Zionistic yearning for our unfinished theocracy or a regretful wish to rewrite past wrongs, States of Deseret taps into our cultural dance with history and uses it as a platform to entertain, educate, and inquire.
A variety of contributors have created delightfully different scenarios. The pieces are anywhere from five to thirty pages, and are organized in such a way as to keep the whole book fun and fresh throughout. Some read as short stories, others are letters or speeches; no one entry is quite like the others. Some of the stories soar. They are creative, profound, and play on the questions a well-read Mormon might have. At times the stories become specified to the point of being Mormonabilia—there are only so many readers that could fully appreciate the subtlety and nuance of a well-researched alternate Mormon history. As for myself, I had fun learning little nuggets of lesser known history scattered within the fiction.
Not every idea delivers, however. A couple of the less well-written contributions are so dramatic and on-the-nose that they read almost like articles from the satiric news site The Onion (which, I suppose, could still be argued as relevant alternate history). Perhaps this was intentional, but to me it just felt lazy, particularly the instance of ascribing the quotes of modern LDS leaders to reimagined ones. The concepts were cool, but I found myself wanting more. A strong alternate history is really fleshed out and lives on its own. The story builds on a common past, but forges its own future. Any reference to the real world by the author is subtle and purposeful. The final story, “Subject to Kings”, mastered this beautifully by presenting a refugee crisis, clearly relevant to today, but in a totally original context.
As a whole, States of Deseret never quite gets away from our cultural lens into a truly alternate history, but that does not appear to be its intention. Instead it, it works to strike a balance between poignant social commentary and vivid world building. If you are not already deeply familiar with our somewhat obscure religion, you may be lost. However, I had a great time reading it, and I would happily recommend it to Mormon history buffs, as well as anyone who enjoys stories with a creative, nuanced approach.
Barrett Burgin is a filmmaker studying at Brigham Young University. His film The Next Door was a finalist for the 2016 Association of Mormon Letters Film award. His latest film is titled Out of the Ground. Burgin cites Christopher Nolan, Alfred Hitchcock, and Rod Serling as influences on his work.