Before Us Like a Land of Dreams

My cute but formidable Mormon mother called me several years ago while I was on a one-semester sabbatical leave. She still thinks sabbatical means “vacation.” She guessed I had plenty of time on my hands.

“You’re a good researcher,” she informed me. “I need you to figure something out.”

She rarely needs anything. I know a maternal imperative when I hear one.

Mormons believe that bureaucratic knots in the afterlife must be untangled now, here, on the mortal planet. The living faithful are stewards of the dead – baptisms, marriages, sacred rituals must be performed by physical bodies, in Mormon temples, so that the structure of human relationships can hold for eternity. And so my mother was concerned about an iffy genealogical record: five generations back, her grandmother Barbara Ann Lindenberger, born 1801 in Providence, Rhode Island, was uncertainly married.

“The record says that she was married to either Silas Sprague or Festus Sprague, in Olive Green, Ohio. Which one is it? We have to get it right.”

This made me crabby. I love my mother, but I grew up with feverish ancestor talk and I vowed never to become a crazy genealogy lady. I don’t believe in souls. I don’t truck with the notion that supernatural destinies depend on some irritable descendant fussing over family group sheets. And sabbatical time was precious; I needed those precious hours to write literature. I told Mom I’d take the afternoon and try to figure out which ghost husband stood behind Door 1, but don’t count on any big  revelations.

And then I spent the whole damned sabbatical on it. I found Barbara’s lost twin sister, dead six months after she married their cousin Silas Sprague. I diagrammed a sequence of couplings: two brothers, two sisters, a pair of stunning early deaths and the survivors’ pragmatic compensations. I tracked redoubled generations along a continental odyssey. I zoomed in on Google Earth. I drove the western routes. I stood and stared at the strangeness of my home horizons. I spent a week in a cheap New England motel, dot-to-dotting tiny overgrown cemeteries. I lay awake wondering what would push a prestigious, established Providence family incrementally westward. What could prompt rational people to believe the story of a boy and a golden book, and to chart a previously unimaginable future as a result? I stood on the Wasatch slopes above Salt Lake City, imagining their first aesthetic shock at the stark convergences I have always seen as home ground.

In short, I was sucked into this oversaturated encounter with my Great Basin heritage because I can’t say no to my mother. The Spragues are her people, but because her mother’s generation all died early of heart disease, none remained to speak them. It was a thrill to find them – and in the years since, many others – in obscure threads and vivid flashes on the internet and academic databases, in choppy emails, moldy books and overgrown cemeteries. Assembling timelines into breathing fictional lives felt audacious and sometimes morally questionable, but it did not once occur to me to stop it. My mother believes she will rise from the grave to live personally among them all in Mormon heaven. Alas, that strain of faith ground to a tumultuous end for me years ago, and I have since struggled to trust the even the most straightforward sensory data. But even so, these stories are small resurrections – fragmented, hallucinogenic, and sometimes monstrous, but they showed me a way to look homeward, after a long season of looking away.

I can hardly believe my good fortune that, a group I have long admired, has released this book. Working with Torrey House has been an exercise in passion, high attention, and mutual love for threatened places.

Photo Gallery: from Before Us Like a Land of Dreams

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