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2007 archive at Andy Hartzell: the Blog

Allred’s overloaded “Plate”


May 28th, 2007

And behold, it came to pass that I, Andy Hartzell, did pick up Michael Allred’s “The Golden Plates”, and did read what was written thereon, and look upon the art also. And it came to pass that I did wax exceeding sleepy, and my renewed fascination with Mormonism did evaporate like unto a puddle on a summers’ day in Utah…

Not fair, of course. This is a reverent work–Allred is adapting the Holy Text of his religion–and I didn’t approach it in a reverent spirit. My enthusiasm piqued by the Krakauer book, I was on an exotic sightseeing tour. I wanted to peer at the insides of this peculiar all-American faith, to ponder it as a distillation of all that’s peculiar about America. I wanted blood-atonement, plural marriages and a corporeal “flesh and bone” God. I wanted a tour through the Tellestrial, Terrestrial and Celestial spheres. But all those doctrines came along after the Book of Mormon.

The Book is purported to be an ancient history of a lost tribe of Israel in the New World, revealed to Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni around 1820. It’s a hard book to critique: either you view it through the eyes of faith, in which case it’s a miracle, or you don’t, in which case it’s a fake. Fascinating, maybe, a revealing glimpse into the distinctively American religion imagination, maybe, but a fake.

I mean, say what you will about the Hebrew Bible. Argue that it’s scientifically impossible for people to turn into pillars of salt, or prophets to part the Red Sea. At leat you’ve got to admit that these stories formed the actual holy text for an actual ancient people. But with the Book of Mormon, unless you’re in the fold, you can’t quite shake the feeling that someone is putting you on.

Can you approach it as just a good yarn? It’s got a strong conflict , which it sets up in the first couple of scenes: the good, pious, dutiful brother vs. the bad, selfish, dishonorable brother. You know right away that, like an old TV miniseries, this rivalry will continue to play itself out down through the generations. Unfortunately, there’s very little in the way of character arc. Bad brother Laman just keeps messing with the good brother Nephi, and Nephi, empowered by God and his own righteousness, keeps beating him back. Laman never learns his lesson, and doesn’t even get a good death scene.

However, we do get the scene where he and his progeny are cursed by God, who turns their skins from “white and delightsome” to “black and loathsome.” I was curious to see how Allred would handle what is, to the nonbeliever, clearly an artifact of Smith’s 19th century racism. He sidesteps political-uncorrectness by giving the cursed clan a sort of mottled, piebald look.

After Laman disappears from the narrative, about halfway through, we’re left with no clearly delineated villain at all. There are a few short action sequences, skirmishes between Nephites and Lamanites, but mostly we’re treated to a series of speeches by Nephite leaders, admonitions to stay on the straight and narrow, which read like a cross between the prophetic books of the old testament and old tent-revival sermons. The narrative breaks off after the “Words of Mormon”, about a quarter of the way through the full “Book of”, to be continued in the next volume. I’ve read a bit farther than that in the real Book fo Mormon, but I never made it to the halfway point, so I don’t know if the action picks up later on.

As a gentile with a short attention span, I wished that Allred felt a little more free to paraphrase and condense his Scripture. A lot of the speeches are repetitive; they deliver fairly basic “Obey God” messages, or they seem to exist mainly to attest to their own miraculous authenticity (although supposedly written centuries before Christ, they not only prophecy the Christian story in explicit detail, but even predict Joseph Smith himself). It would have been nice if Allred had condensed the speechifying even more than he did, and concentrated on the dramatic bits. Whatever one thinks about its origins, it is, at least, an epic saga.

I should conclude with a couple of compliments. Allred is a great draughtsman with a nice bold brushline. His characters look good (in a Hallmark-channel sort of way, but that’s entirely appropriate); his men are hunky with chiselled features, his women full-lipped and dewy. The coloring, by Allred’s wife Laura, is excellent–generally subdued, with occasional splashes of intensity.

Is there a way for the nonbeliever to read and appreciate “The Golden Plates”? Here’s one: Nephi and his lineage are embodiments of the heroic “boy scout” ideal: they are strong, courageous, loyal, obedient, thrifty and hardworking. this ideal has been subjected to a lot of deconstructing in our culture over the past couple of generations. The squarejawed hero has been continually recast as a buffoon, a conflicted neurotic or a sociopath. Even though I found his book less than thrilling, it’s kind of reassuring that Allred, and the Mormon culture of which he is a part, have managed to keep this ideal alive.