During these polarized times, when even public health has become politicized, it’s extra-important to build bridges between our two “sides,” and to retain and strengthen the dialogues we already have. That’s why I want to talk today about the new novel by Holly Larsen, called Sisters, Plural. Holly was one of my closest friends when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, so of course I’m biased, but… after reading her book as light entertainment, I realized in retrospect that it’s actually rather profound.
Holly is a liberal, educated, cosmopolitan woman from a Mormon family, and if that sounds like an oxymoron, it’s not – I’ve known several. She’s also a gifted writer with strong connections to her family, and in her first novel she chose to tell the story of her great-grandmother’s unusual courtship, nicely fictionalized, with a parallel story that she invented for her great-grandmother’s sister.
The story is set in 1910, in St Johns, Arizona, which the map tells me is midway between Phoenix and Albuquerque. Betsy Harris is heartbroken because the lovely young man she’s got a crush on, Heber Orchard, has become engaged while off in Los Angeles on his mission. (All Mormon young men go on a mission, a religious rite of passage.)
Her sister, Eliza, has relationship complications of her own – everyone thinks she’s involved with her best friend, Frank, because they keep wandering off together, but really it’s a cover. She and Frank have an “understanding,” and she’s actually meeting a handsome young Mexican, Raymond. She fantasizes (naively) about converting Raymond to her church, but when his family finds out about her, they ship him off to Los Angeles to work for his uncle.
Suddenly, though, Heber’s fiancée Virginia dies. Betsy feels so guilty – what if it was her prayers that caused this? When he returns to St Johns, though, he finds that Betsy is the best person to talk to about how he feels, and soon he’s falling in love with her too.
Eliza becomes determined to follow Raymond to Los Angeles, and she starts raising money for her trip, which will have to be a secret. She tells only Frank, who also wants to move to the big city.
The story alternates between the perspectives of the two young women. Betsy is obviously a very kind person, while Eliza… can be. She’s also self-centered to a humorous degree.
And all of this is taking place in the two-building household formed by three adults: Eliza’s mother, Betsy’s mother, and the husband they share in a “plural marriage,” along with their other six children. One of the gifts of fiction is that after a chapter or two, this all feels perfectly natural.
(And what about Frank, anyway? Why this “understanding”? Is he really not interested in Eliza, or maybe he doesn’t think he could aspire to the local girls because he’s apparently somewhat funny-looking? Or is there more going on?)
After I’d finished the book, which resolves all their stories most satisfactorily, I kept thinking about the two women. In our lab discussions of worldview psychology, we’ve often discussed the sociological ideas of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft – the former refers to communities typically based on relationships and shared tradition, while the latter refers to communities in which interactions tend to be more transactional (commercial, industrialized, formal). In other words: traditional vs. modern.
When we import these ideas into psychology, one of the biggest implications is for our sense of meaning-in-life. If you grow up in a traditional Gesellschaft community (and don’t rebel against it), your adult life is often mapped out for you, and by embracing those expectations, your life is automatically meaningful. Growing up in the Gemeinschaft world is very different – you’re taught that you can become whatever you want, but then you’re left with the job of making all those choices. Whatever sense of meaningfulness you get from life is there because you figure out how to put it there. It can be very rewarding, but for many it’s also alienating and difficult.
So it struck me that Betsy’s perspective is very much Gemeinschaft. She’s not a rebel; she accepts the world she’s been handed by her parents and aspires to a traditional role. Eliza, on the other hand, discovers she wants to make her own way in the world – in the big, somewhat scary city. She’s a better fit for Gesellschaft, with all the extra work that goes along with that. But our author isn’t telling us that Eliza’s way is better, necessarily – it seems to be better for Eliza, and surely for Frank, but Eliza doesn’t want to lose everything she’s grown up with. And Betsy’s choice comes with a stinger, because she discovers that not every aspect of her traditional belief system is consistent with what her heart wants most.
Also – even though Eliza’s perspective is the first taken by the reader, and she’s the one who rushes out to join “our” world – she’s so much more self-involved than anyone else in her family, which can also be a cost of the Gesellschaft mentality. It’s such a nice touch to have the reader like traditional Betsy better.
Anyway, back to my original point about building bridges. I’m not a Mormon myself, but I imagine that this book would appeal to even the most traditional Latter-Day Saints. It’s written with great sympathy for their world. Yet if you read it carefully, you’ll realize that it’s also a very inclusive story – even if the traditional Mormon community doesn’t feel welcoming to everyone born there, everyone is still valued. Those who choose to leave are still loved. And years later, Eliza is still friends with Frank… and his long-time housemate, Oliver.
What a great story for our time – the importance of keeping connections even when those we care for see some parts of our world very differently from ourselves.
If you’d like to read Holly’s book, here’s the Amazon link. And here’s the cover, featuring a photo of Holly’s real-life great-grandmother and one of her sisters; the cover art is by our former colleague Carolyn Edmunds.