||Mar 15, 2008
A group of Mormon pioneers is sent out into the Utah wilderness to colonize a territory and end up making history.
Sarah Williams is a young Welsh immigrant, coming to Utah to meet up with her sister, Mary Ann Perkins. When the Perkins are asked to join the San Juan Mission to pioneer a trail through southern Utah, they take Sarah along to help care for the children. But a six-week journey turns into six agonizing months of hard toil as the Saints blast their way through a cliff to bring their wagons through what would become the famous Utah landmark called The Hole in the Rock.
Season of Sacrifice - reviewed by Michele Paige Holmes
I am a picky reader. Like the writer's depression I blogged about last time, being picky with my reading material is an unfortunate byproduct of writing. And the more I write and learn about good writing, the pickier I get with what I read. No longer can I simply read for enjoyment; instead I find myself analyzing the characters' actions, the dialogue, the motivation and conflict. It's really annoying---most of all to myself, because I really love to read. And there are a lot of good stories out there that are less than perfect--mine included.
While I still read a great deal, a book has to speak to me, touch me in some way if I'm going to recommend it to others. Today I'm happy to say that I have a great recommendation, a book I think should be read by every Latter-day Saint and those outside our faith as well.
Tristi Pinkston's Season of Sacrifice is a fictionalized account of her ancestors, Ben, Mary Anne, and Sarah Perkins, who immigrated from Wales, became faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, pioneered their way through Hole in the Rock to settle the San Juan Valley, and finally entered into a polygamous marriage.
I admit to being presdisposed to liking this book. I'd heard its history--how one of the big LDS publishing houses rejected it because, though it was a well-written and compelling story, it dealt with the issue of polygamy. Rather than getting it published, the author refused to take out the storyline dealing with this sensitive and often taboo subject and has waited some time before being able to self-publish this story. Hats off to Tristi for hanging in there, and for sticking with what really happened to her ancestors. Their story is both heart-wrenching and eye-opening, and since reading it, I cannot stop thinking about Ben, Mary Anne, and Sarah who really lived and endured so very much.
Now onto the story . . . SPOILERS AHEAD!
The book begins in 1859 in Treboeth Wales with fifteen-year-old Ben Perkins and his father assisting in the rescue and removal of bodies from a coal mine collapse. It doesn't take long to see the harsh realities of life in this time period and coal mining town. Children as young as six are sent to work in the mines; accidents are common; health is poor. Those fortunate enough to avoid working in the mines, like Sarah Williams, work hard at home, helping run the household from sunup to sundown.
Throughout the first section of the book--sixty-eight pages--one trial after another befalls the Williams and Perkins families. Ben immigrates to America, leaving his sweetheart Mary Anne behind with a promise he'll send for her when he's saved enough money. To do that, he takes a job on the trail, driving a team of oxen. There's just one problem with this---Ben has never worked with oxen before. What was probably a very trying experience is a rather humorous part of the book.
The first day goes all right though,
Ben looked at the animals, and they looked at him. Neither were impressed. The second day things get ugly when Ben mistakenly hitches the wrong oxen to his wagon.
"Where's my ox? Somebody stole my ox!"
Several of the other teamsters ran over, looking around them. Ben came too, wondering who could be so thoughtless as to steal that poor man's animal.
"There it is!" one of the men yelled, pointing to Ben's wagon.
"Ben! Why did you take my ox?" The teamster, a man named Clint, yelled in his face.
"They look the same," Ben said. He didn't know that ox wasn't his. An ox was an ox, right? They were all big and ugly.
Unfortunately for Ben, the trip didn't get any easier, but he did save enough money for the rest of his family, along with Mary Anne, to make the journey to America. Mary Anne joins him, they are married and have two children, one of whom dies shortly after birth. A short while later Mary Anne is asked to take in a baby whose mother has died. Though at first she does not think she can care for the child, she finds her heart is not as closed as she believed, and she comes to love the little girl as her own.
With Mary Anne gone, much of the work in the Williams' home falls to her sister (younger by nine years), Sarah. Their father takes a mining job in Russia and ends up being gone three years--much longer than he or his family anticipated. In his absence, Sarah's older brother Thomas runs away to Australia, her mother has another baby, and they are forced to sell their home and move to a smaller one to make ends meet. Throughout all of this Sarah is seen as a patient, long-suffering and introspective young woman.
Upon her father's return, the family decides to immigrate to America both to improve her father's health and to be near her sister, Mary Anne, living in Cedar City, Utah.
Sarah faces the difficult decision of staying behind and marrying the young man who is courting her or leaving with her family.
Sarah stood for a moment on the steps of the Methodist Church and pulled a scarf over her head. The eastern breezes had brought fog from the ocean, and it hung thick and ghost-like over the town, wrapping itself around the tall steeples of the church. She loved days like that--days when the sun would peek through the clouds only occasionally, giving hints about what might be to come but not letting on too much.
As she ponders her choices and the subject of religion (unlike her parents, she has not been baptized) she eventually decides she must go with her family, leaving her homeland and her beau behind forever.
At this point in the story I felt like I had to catch my breath as so much had happened so quickly. And this is my complaint about this book (told you I was picky). Many huge, significant events are given only a paragraph or two while the author pushes ahead to the main story--what happened in Utah. Tristi is a talented writer (see the above excerpt), and I would loved to have seen more time and pages devoted to some of the events in these people's lives. However, having said that, and having read the entire book, I do understand what an incredible story she had to tell and I can only imagine the enormous task it must have been to tie it all together. The book does slow down for the telling of the journey to the San Juan valley, and it slows down even more during the last section titled, "The Sacrifice." And presenting it this way does make sense in that all the things these people went through---poverty, sickness, death, being separated from each other by an ocean, pioneering a trail through the desert in the middle of winter---pale in comparison to what they were ultimately asked to do.
The third section of the book is devoted to the perilous journey Ben, Mary Anne, their children, and several other saints (including Sarah) take from Cedar City to settle the San Juan valley. What was supposed to be a six week journey turns into six months as the group blazes their own trail, including the famous hole in the rock. The author's research for this section is meticulous, and I really learned a lot about the painfully slow and dangerous process of this expedition. My favorite part was the story (documented in the chapter notes at the end of the book) about another family on the journey, Stanford and Arabella Smith, who had to bring their wagon down the hole alone because no one remained behind to help them. Stanford later retells the traumatic experience to Ben and Mary Anne.
"I told her I feared we couldn't make it. She was calm as she could be. 'We have to make it,' she said.
"I told her if we had someone to hold the wagon back, we might succeed."
Stanford paused and rubbed his face. He resumed talking, his voice thick with tears.
"Belle said she would hold the wagon back. She told me she'd pull back on Nig's lines and that we'd leave the children at the top and come back for them. I worried we wouldn't come back, but she said we would. We wrapped the children up in blankets and set them on a snow bank. Roy, he's our three-year-old, sat down, and Belle put the baby between his legs. She told him to hold his little brother until we came back for them. She put Ada, our oldest, in front of the two boys and asked her to say a little prayer, and told them not to move and not to stand up." Tears ran freely down Stanford's cheeks.
The rest of the passage is too long to recount here (go buy the book!) but reading it brought tears to my eyes. I cannot imagine the faith these people had. And I wasn't even to the really gripping, emotionally-wrenching part of the story yet.
The last section of the book deals with the polygamous marriage of Ben, Mary Anne, and Sarah. This was difficult for me to read, and I can only imagine how terribly hard it must have been to write. I love and adore my husband and feel the same emotions from him, and I cannot imagine much worse than having to share that with someone else. One of the great blessings of living the gospel is our belief in the law of chastity. Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) have very strict beliefs when it comes to sexual intimacy. It is reserved for marriage and marriage only. How grateful I've been over the twenty years of my marriage, that both my husband and I followed this counsel in our youth. The intimacies between us are between us only; they are a sacred, loving, and binding part of our marriage. I truly feel sorry for those living the world's standards who do not have this blessing. And along these lines, I've always struggled with our church's polygamous past, knowing it is something I could not do. We are asked to love the Lord more than anything else, and to be honest I struggle with this when it comes to my husband and children. I am grateful the sacrifices I've been called upon to make have come in the form of sharing time and talents. My husband serves as a bishop, and there have been times I've hated to share him with that calling, times I selfishly wanted him home with our family. I don't doubt that is something I will continue to struggle with while he has this calling, though I try my best to be supportive. I know his love and service has blessed many people, and yet I yearn for the days when we were younger, life was simpler, and he was home by five!
As I read about Ben, Mary Anne, and Sarah, I could not help but make comparisons, and of course my little sacrifice paled in light of what they had to do. I have no doubt Tristi was inspired to write this part of the story. Her telling of it left me with much to think about and a deeper understanding and appreciation for what a polygamous marriage entailed. Every Latter-Day Saint should read this story, if for no other reason than to answer the questions often posed by those not of our faith. Should someone ask me about our polygamous history now, I would feel I had some appropriate and accurate answers. And while it is something I will never completely understand (one of those things I trust Heavenly Father will clarify and explain some day) I feel a greater peace with our past.
Ben first proposes the idea of a polygamous marriage to Sarah, telling her his patriarchal blessing (given years earlier) told him he would someday take a second wife. This has always troubled both he and Mary Anne, as they love each other deeply and are happy together. Aside from knowing this will hurt the woman he loves the most, Ben is also concerned with the practicality of such an arrangement.
He couldn't say the principle made sense to him. He couldn't even imagine how he was to go about supporting two wives--he barely had enough to care for one.
Mary Anne reacts much as I imagine I would, she is crushed, her heart broken, the trust between them shattered. That Ben would marry her own sister makes things that much worse.
"Nothing has happened, Mary Ann. He asked me a question, that is all."
"That's all?" Mary Ann rose and crossed the floor, her face in Sarah's. "He asked you to share with him a life that he has only shared with me. He is taking away a portion of himself and giving it to you. My children will do without a father for a period of time so he can spend it wooing you. And you think that's all?"
"That's not what I meant," Sarah said softly. "I meant that his actions toward me, and mine toward him, have been above reproach."
"I don't doubt that," Mary Ann retorted. "I know my husband well enough to know that he wouldn't say or do anything inappropriate. But the fact remains that while he's been married to me, he's been thinking about you."
Ouch. And well said. Mary Ann's hurt became my own as I read these passages. I felt her relief when her sister refused and returned to Cedar City. And I absolutely loved the comparison Mary Ann (and the author) drew with Abraham's sacrifice.
She badly wanted the Lord to tell him (Ben) he had done enough, that no more would be required. Hadn't Abraham been released from his heart-wrenching commandment? But even as she had the thought, she knew it was not possible in her own life. God had made a command, and Ben would strive to fulfill it at all costs. It was part of why she loved him. She never dreamed it would be part of why she hated him.
I tried to understand why both Ben and Sarah spent the following year grappling with the decision. I wanted Sarah to get on a boat back to Wales and marry the man she'd left behind. But she understood that to do so would have been to leave her faith, and the opportunity to raise children in the gospel, behind. Ultimately she chose her faith over everything else and became Ben's second wife---a marriage very different from her sister's I might add. I felt her hurt too, imagining how it would be on your wedding day, if, shortly after the wedding, your husband left to spend the night with and comfort his other wife. There wasn't any romance here that I could see, but rather a resignation to the harsh reality that there weren't enough men for every woman to have her own husband and to raise up a righteous family. And so incredible sacrifices were made.
Sarah's decision divided her family---her parents were hurt and hateful, accusing her of setting her cap for her sister's husband. Mary Ann was so wounded she too acted out of character, striking her sister and at first refusing to speak with her. I felt Sarah's hurt when she pled with Ben.
"Promise me," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "Promise me that the Lord will make it right."
"He will make it right," Ben echoed. "He always does . . . in his own due time."
For me right is one husband and one wife. And I still have hope a loving Heavenly Father will arrange that for these people in the life to come. But for the time they spent on earth, they had to learn to live with their situation. Eventually, unbelievably, harmony came to the home they shared. Feelings were mended. Love overcame the wounds. Personally, this is still something I don't think I could ever recover from. But in thinking about my life, there are things that have happened in our own family that, even now, I am not sure how the Lord managed to heal, and yet he has.
The fact remains that the early saints sacrificed much and brought forth a strong, righteous prosperity. I am grateful Tristi took the time to research and write one family's story in such a profound and moving way. It is a story that has forever altered the way I will think about some things, and it has given me cause to look into the stories of my own ancestors and learn from the experiences and sacrifices in their lives.
Season of Sacrifice - reviewed by Heather Justesen
The beginning of the book is fast paced with great dialogue and descriptions, pulling you into the scene of a mine cave-in from the beginning. This glimpse into the life of Ben Perkins is a sign of the man he becomes, and the faith that directs his life as an adult.
Several years later, Ben is a young man, preparing to emigrate to America, leaving behind his family and sweetheart Mary Ann Williams. Before leaving, he extracts a promise from Mary Ann to join his family when they came to America. He struggles to learn English and to fit into the new world as he works to save the money to send for his loved ones. After Mary Ann joins him in America and they are married, the focus of the story turns to her much-younger sister Sarah, and the struggles her family, who still lives in Wales, goes through over the next several years.
After several difficult years, Sarah and the rest of the Williams family join Ben and Mary Ann in Utah and Sarah agrees to help the married couple with their children as they make the journey to form a new settlement in San Juan. The trip is long and arduous, lasting six months instead of the expected six weeks as the group of fifty families are forced to make roads where there were none, and the blast holes in narrow canyon slits to make them large enough to pass a wagon through in the dead of winter.
I gained a new appreciation for the struggles the members of this group went through as they dealt with dangerous passes, lack of grazing for their animals, freezing weather and exhaustion. These pioneers received amazing inspiration to have known what was the best course of action in a trek that should have been completely impossible.
Tristi's writing is rich and engaging and her history was well researched. Though I had been very concerned about how Tristi might handle the touchy subject of Polygamy, it was deftly handled so any reader could understand the struggle it was for everyone involved. I learned a new appreciation for the difficulty the those who practiced it endured.
Season of Sacrifice - reviewed by Stephanie Black
I’m usually an “entertainment” reader when it comes to fiction. Though it makes me sound a bit shallow, I’ll admit I’m not on the hunt for deep, profound, instructive novels. I want a fun read. If I learn something in the course of the story, awesome, but what interests me most is the story itself. Is it compelling? Do I care about the characters? Am I eager to find out what happens or is it one of those “I paid fourteen dollars for this book and I'm going to finish it if it kills me” experiences? In the case of LDS fiction, are doctrinal or spiritual elements woven seamlessly into the story, enriching it while not feeling preachy, or tending to bring the plot to a screeching halt?
But a good story is not enough. I also care about the writing. As I’m sure my fellow writers can attest, once you start studying and writing fiction yourself, you become WAY more picky of a reader. Things that I never would have noticed before now irritate me. So I want a good story and good writing.
Recently I read a book that not only filled both these requirements for a good read (good story plus good writing), but also included the bonus of teaching me something. I’m not opposed to learning something in my fiction, see. I just don’t want the story to drag or stop in order for the learning to take place, and in the case of Tristi Pinkston’s compelling Season of Sacrifice, the story moves along at a rapid pace.
I was particularly interested in this book because it deals with the story of the “Hole in the Rock” pioneers who settled the San Juan, and I had ancestors at Hole in the Rock. Season of Sacrifice centers around Tristi’s ancestor, Ben Perkins, and his two wives, sisters Mary Ann and Sarah Williams. Ben, with experience gained in the mines in Wales, played a vital role in blasting the way through the rock, allowing the pioneers to run their wagons down an extremely steep cliff in order to fulfill the call they’d been given to settle the San Juan Valley.
The courage and tenacity demonstrated by these pioneers is astounding. When seemingly insurmountable obstacles loomed, they conquered them through tremendous faith, determination and sheer guts. I’m kind of scared of steep hills, and the thought of sending a wagon down a rock chute—I’m thinking that riding the paved hills of San Francisco in a minivan is enough for me. Climbing in a wagon and shooting down the side of a mountain would have been terror beyond terror for me! But these faithful pioneers wouldn’t let anything stop them. The Lord had called them to settle the San Juan and they were going to do it, no matter what it took. And they succeeded.
Ironically, the most emotionally wrenching part of the story comes after the pioneers have settled in their new home. Ben knows that it is time for him to fulfill the counsel given in his patriarchal blessing and take a second wife. He’s been happily married to Mary Ann for many years, but now knows that Mary Ann’s sister, Sarah, is the woman who should be his second wife. This decision is fraught with pain for both sisters and for Ben as they struggle to do as the Lord has required of them. Reading of their struggles was an eye-opener for me. It’s so easy to put the early saints on a pedestal and think oh, they were so strong and so faithful that of course they could deal with this requirement without batting an eye. But this was incredibly hard for them, and I was so caught up in their lives that when the story ended, I felt like, “No! I want more! Go on!”
Season of Sacrifice is a compelling and inspiring story of people whose faith could move mountains—whether that meant blasting through rock or blasting through mountains of emotional pain. Kudos to Tristi Pinkston for sharing the story of these faithful people.
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