“Christopher Jacob Arnold sought peace for many days.”
So begins J. Scott Bronson’s novella, The Agitated Heart. This short book provides what many longer works lose in their lengthiness: concise language, yes, but rich, deep characters, situations and themes that make you think, a stillness that engulfs you after you’ve read.
Too often in LDS (Mormon) fiction (and Christian fiction in general), the characters are shallow, the themes fluffed up and light, the conflict little better than skin-deep, even those with themes as heavy as the Atonement of Christ. It is as though publishers think their readers live in a bubble, that they don’t want to edge the point of a knife into the emotions and themes that really matter. But this, ah, this can qualify as the ever-elusive LDS Literature. In it, there is a family of four, and each character is unique, flawed, with anguished, agitated hearts and doubts that they will ever reach above their flawed nature and be perfected in Christ.
We have Marcus, the father who is also a teacher in his ward’s (congregation’s) Sunday School. He has wit and charm, and isn’t above trying to ruffle some of the more conservative church members’ feathers to bring a scriptural point across. But he’s also concerned that he’s growing apart from his wife, from his kids, that he can’t protect his son or understand his wife’s sorrows, that his daughter doesn’t trust him enough to talk to him.
Then there’s Susan, the mother who serves as the president in her ward’s primary (like nursery, or children’s Sunday School). She is confident in her calling, and loves her husband more than the world. But she also thinks she’s a failure as a mother, someone who can’t share her fears and insecurities with her husband, who wants to rush in and save her children from the horrors of the world, to stand like a fierce lioness and protect them all. And she’s afraid she can’t.
There’s Kari, the youngest, smart as a whip and confident, secure in herself. But she stutters, and she stays quiet at school, and she’s scared of her upcoming baptism. And she feels like she can’t tell anybody that.
And finally, there’s Christian, who is being bullied at school, and who is kind and compassionate. But he doesn’t want to cause a fuss, doesn’t want to hurt others, and as he looks and learns about his family and his schoolmates he wants to protect them too.
I can’t do this book justice. Reading it was like reading a lullaby–it is deceptively simple, and the tone is subdued, like the surface of a river that hides the strong current underneath. It was written for an LDS audience (as there is no dancing around commonly-known terms and words in LDS culture), but the themes run deeper than that (And I’m sure some of the content/inner thoughts of the characters would ruffle feathers of people who are as conservative as the afore-mentioned Sunday School class member, even though these thoughts/content are much milder than other non-LDS books). Even now, after reading it one and a half times, I get the feeling I’m only scratching the surface of this book. It’s one that I could easily pick up and reread every few months or so and find something new.
I feel like, perhaps with the aid of a glossary, this book could reach a much wider audience. Or maybe no glossary is needed. Having grown up in the LDS culture, I know the terms and phrases by heart, so it’s hard for me to subtract those experiences and see how much those terms would confuse someone without that background knowledge. Even so, I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a religiously themed book that doesn’t preach so much as teach and allow the mind to think and ponder. And, for those who aren’t LDS or familiar with the LDS culture, here is a short (and most likely incomplete) glossary:
LDS: Short for Latter-Day Saint. The complete official name of the Mormon church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Ward: Congregation. Church areas are split into Districts, then Stakes (as in Stakes of Zion, though they’re not officially called that), and then Wards. I’m probably missing a few levels there, but oh well.
Bishop: The “head clergyman” of the ward. Sort of like a pastor. All positions in the LDS church are unpaid laymen/women. People remain in their “callings” for a few years, usually.
Primary: Primary Sunday School. For children ages three to eleven. Younger than three go to Nursery, twelve and up go to Young Men/Young Women.
Brother/Sister: (capitalized) Titles, like Mr. and Mrs. A sign of respect.
Priesthood: either referring to a class or the Power of God. Yeah, it’s a little weird that the same word is used for both.
Relief Society: the organization of women in the church. Also a class meeting on Sunday. I can’t remember if Relief Society is mentioned in the book or not, which is why it’s so far down the list. Since Susan is the Primary President, she doesn’t go to Relief Society, so I can’t think of a reason why it would be mentioned.
And that’s it. I think most of the words that would cause a reader to pause are organizational in nature. To keep the flow of the book going, J. Scott Bronson chose not to describe what each one was whenever they came across. After all, the characters wouldn’t stop to think, “the Bishop, the head clergyman of our Ward congregation.” And, to be honest, there are probably enough contextual clues that I didn’t need to add this glossary anyway.