Mission to America

What New Yorkers Don't Understand About the American West
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 18 2005 12:12 PM

Mission to America

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Dear Steve,

A fable, not a satire—you're dead right. If I wrote my autobiography straight, most reviewers would call it satire, too. That's what they tend to do with honest narratives that take as a given an American scene they find baffling, dubious, and embarrassing.

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For example, would this be satire? At 12 years old, while living in Arizona with my patent-attorney father and registered-nurse mother, I answered the front door one afternoon and was confronted by two 18-year-old boys who informed me that they'd been sent by God to counsel, enlighten, and heal my family by converting it to the Mormon religion—a faith created by a New York farm boy who claimed to have discovered an ancient scripture while digging in a hillside near his home. I let the boys into the house. Two months later, my family was baptized in a waist-deep water tank next to a table spread with crackers and onion dip and holding a bowl of fluorescent pink Kool-Aid punch. That day we joined million of others in a religion that believes, among other things, that the Kingdom of God will be restored someday in the general vicinity of Kansas City, Mo.

Outlandish? Ridiculous? To some, perhaps, who see everything from a distance, as a case study. To me it was just my childhood, my church, and, eventually, my circle of friends.

And why write satire, anyway, when the world as it stands is barely describable—particularly in the mountain West where I live, and particularly when it comes to religious matters? A couple of years ago, I covered a forest fire for Time that led me to Pinedale, a little Montana town populated by Mormon polygamists. There they were, just miles from Missoula, the state's most cosmopolitan city, living in families of six or seven wives and 15 or 20 children. I remember sitting with one of the old patriarchs as flames came over a ridge top to the west of us, just a mile or so from the town center. "Shouldn't you evacuate?" I asked. The fellow told me that God would spare the town, he was absolutely sure of it, and several hours later, when the fire was within 100 yards of us, there was a sudden change in wind direction.

My move to Montana from New York City came out of another news story I covered related to religion. Fifteen years ago, near the town of Livingston, a cult called the Church Universal and Triumphant was informed by its leader, a lady with a nice perm who went by the name of Elizabeth Clare Prophet, that the world would be destroyed a few months later. The membership (about 2,000 people) immediately got busy building bomb shelters, and I flew out from Manhattan to describe the scene. People were charging up their credit cards because they thought the bills would never come due. They were buying ammunition by the crate load. One guy's job was to rent a Ryder truck and drive around a three-state area amassing enough tampons and feminine napkins to last the faith's female members for seven years, which was how long they thought they'd be inside their shelters.

No, Mission to America isn't satire—it's affectionate realism, if anything, and a fable about a small group of Rip Van Winkles whose culture fell asleep in 1880 and woke up in 2005. The utopian religion I invented for the book is a composite of 19th-century faiths far wackier than the one I came up with, and yet not wacky at all, because they were composed of human beings who put on their socks the same way that you and I do. As for the setting of the billionaire's buffalo ranch, which certain reviewers have deemed fantastic or some sort of humorous literary construct, it's based on a ranch that borders my own farm. The West is full of such places nowadays: small wild kingdoms with invented ecologies owned by oil and computer magnates who visit them three weeks a year by private jet, often in the company of U.S. senators, movie stars, and Middle Eastern sheiks.

What such fantasy ranches have in common with the time-locked mountain-valley religious settlement where my characters grew up is that they're both separatist, utopian experiments. The same thing that brought the Mormons to Utah once—a desire to be left alone and live exclusively with their own kind—brings the leisure class to Montana now. Mission to America brings these two utopias into conflict. Not, as you say you feared, to stage mock battles between the forces of innocence and decadence, but simply as the setting for a fable (I've made your term my own) about leaving home and trying to stay true to it while also absorbing the newness of the great world. It's a challenge in every American life, because none of us, when you think about it some, is born in the mainstream center of everything. We arrive from some fringe land of faith or family or culture that we can never quite leave or fully get back to once we've learned to move among the crowds.

Yours,

Walter

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