It is from my perspective as a Jewish author living here in Salt Lake City that I read Ellen Hopkins' "Burned," a new novel-in-verse for teenagers about an LDS girl during a turning-point summer in her life.
The LDS Church is very different from my Jewish faith. It believes itself to be the one true church, proselytizes actively, has serious issues with gays and supports a rather conventional view of sex roles. Its rigid hierarchy makes one who hails from a tradition of "two Jews, three synagogues" want to run for the hills.
The church is personally not for me. But I am proud to have Mormons as my friends, neighbors and colleagues, for it is a God-and-family centered faith whose members contribute mightily to our nation. While there are elements of the religion that one might find objectionable, some or all of the same criticisms could apply to other faith traditions Roman Catholicism, fundamentalist Protestantism, my Orthodox Jewish brethren and Islam.
In "Burned," though, the reader finds the church unrelentingly bashed. At the family level, the bashing occurs in the persona of heroine Pattyn's devout Mormon father, who acts criminally toward his own family in supposed accordance with church doctrine. At the local level, it's the portrayal of uniformly hurtful bishops and congregation members who look away from child and wife abuse. At the macro, there is the clear implication that higher-ups must be complicit and that the faith is at the root of all this evil.
This is literary group character assassination. While there are repressive offshoots of Mormonism, like the Fundamentalist and Reorganized LDS churches, they were long ago disowned. What Hopkins writes of in "Burned" might be indicative of one or more of these offshoots but not the modern-day LDS Church as I understand it. Nor does it do any good to hide behind the shibboleth that a first-person novel simply reflects the point of view of the narrator, for the "Burned" author wrote an author's note affirming that much in her novel is true.
More importantly, when writing for teens and kids, it is incumbent upon authors to understand that our young audience often lacks the background to evaluate and contextualize what they're reading, especially in books about race, religion and ethnicity. We, therefore, have a special responsibility to gently provide some sense of balance and truth. My wife and I lived in Nashville for 10 years before we dared start "A Heart Divided" (Random House, 2004) a novel about a Confederate flag controversy. Though our narrative was similarly first person, we tried to tell a balanced story.
Not so with "Burned." I shudder to think the impression of my Mormon neighbors that a young person in, say, Iowa or New York City will take away from this book. Mis-impression at a young age can lead to a lifetime of prejudice.There are my friends and my neighbors being impugned our friends and neighbors, in our national community. I, for one, am not going to stand idly by. I invite my fellow authors, educators, librarians and readers to join me in protecting our neighbors' honor as dearly as our own.
Jeff Gottesfeld, with his wife, wrote "A Heart Divided" (Random House, 2004).