“Falling in Love with Joseph Smith” by Jane Barnes

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“Falling in Love with Joseph Smith” by Jane Barnes

c.2012, Jeremy P. Tarcher
Penguin $25.95 / $27.50 Canada
288 pages

BOOK REVIEW
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER

The magazines reminded you of a different time.

There they were, moldering in a pile in the attic where your mother found them, dozens of them, dog-eared and well-loved. Why did she save them?  You’ll never know, but as you wistfully fingered the fragile paper, memories of a crush you had on a teen idol came flooding back.

You’d almost forgotten that obsession.

You’d never forget his songs.

For author Jane Barnes, the obsession started in adulthood and grew, until the subject of her fascination asked her to change her life. In her book “Falling in Love with Joseph Smith,” she explains…

The obsession began with another obsession: following some innocent religious exposure, Jane Barnes began to irrationally fear the deaths of her two young daughters. It was a fear she couldn’t stop, so she called on her childhood God for help.

He didn’t answer. Seeking religion that offered comfort, Barnes tried other churches and rejected them all – until she read about Joseph Smith.

Smith was born in Vermont in 1805 to churchgoing parents who allowed their children to choose their own religions. At age fourteen, young Joseph went into the woods to ask God to help him decide, when he was bathed in a shaft of light and was visited by God and Jesus. They forbade him to join any sects, which set Smith on a path with the angel Moroni, mysterious gold plates, and a book that the largely illiterate boy would read from the bottom of his hat.

Nearly two hundred years later, Barnes read a biography about Smith and it “reawakened religious feelings.”  She started working with another writer on an HBO documentary, immersing herself in the story of the prophet’s life. She became a little obsessed with the man who was controversial, charismatic, and who died in Illinois, never having seen the settlement that his Mormon brethren founded.

As Barnes read Smith’s work, she saw him as funny, lighthearted, and nothing like the stern man others believed him to be. Her obsession grew… until she felt called to “conversion” and a pull toward something she couldn’t do.

“Falling in Love with Joseph Smith” isn’t a bad book.

It’s not great, either.

I was charmed by the sprightliness of author Jane Barnes’ account of the life of Joseph Smith. In other hands, his story feels stern but Barnes paints him as common, which makes Smith’s life more approachable.  I loved that Barnes weaved her own religious search in with that which Smith undertook.

And then this book gets weird, with a long, imaginary scenario featuring Smith, Huck Finn, and Tom Sawyer; and a pseudo-psychedelic passage about Barnes’ love affair with another woman. Those odd bits felt extremely incompatible with a journey embracing the founder of a major religion.

I think, if you’re looking for a quick, lively view of the beginning of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, this one will serve you well. If you want something a bit more reverential, though, “Falling in Love with Joseph Smith” doesn’t have a prayer.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin.

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