“In heaven, all the interesting people are missing.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
1.) Everything I know about the Mormon faith could fit in a container the approximate size of a thimble.
2.) I’m not a religious person, but I am spiritual.
3.) I have a difficult time understanding how hate and religion integrate.
4.) I have a difficult time reading books that have anything to do with organized religion.
5.) I liked this book.
Jeff Laver’s Elder Petersen’s Mission Memories reads an awful lot like a memoir. Whether it is or not, I can’t say, but the story’s narrator, Steve Petersen, feels as though he’s speaking from experience, which is what makes me wonder if this is actually a complete work of fiction.
Nineteen-years-old Steve is preparing for his first Mormon mission to Columbia, South America. One of the first things I didn’t know about the mission process is that each young man loses his first name, becoming Elder as he is indoctrinated into the missionary fold. The second thing I didn’t know is that each Elder is assigned a companion, and this companion becomes a figurative appendage, in that every single moment of every single day is supposed to be spent together, even to the point that one companion should be in the next room, close by, while the other is using the bathroom.
Elder Petersen’s companion is a boy he knew in high school, and confesses to the reader he’d been attracted to, though Randy was two grades ahead of Steve. Randy Evans, now known as Elder Evans, has been in the mission process long enough that he’s been chosen to become mentor and guide to Elder Petersen, but it’s not at all as simple as the church doctrine dictates it should be.
Steve and Randy’s relationship is strained by Elder Petersen’s adamant insistence upon abiding by the letter of the law, and his fervent desire to uphold the teachings of the church, while Elder Evans’ faith is diminished by his disbelief of so many of the things he’s been brought up to believe.
As I read through Elder Petersen’s memories, I was struck by one huge irony in the Mormon missionary program, that being the contrast of the church’s hard-line, anti-homosexuality stance (this being in the early 1970s, mind you), and the fact that they create the perfect storm of opportunity and temptation for these young men to be able to act upon their desires, which Steve and Randy ultimately do.
In a system that has taught them they can learn to be straight and that anything less than heterosexuality is a one-way ticket to excommunication first and Hell next, there’s no room in Steve’s thought process for assimilating how good what he and Randy did together felt, with the overwhelming guilt he feels afterward. Randy is ready to throw himself under the bus if it means saving Steve from the shame and fear of eternal damnation, and Steve eventually does confess his sin even as he falls deeper and deeper into despair, knowing that his feelings and reactions to what he and Steve had experienced together were not the perversion he’d always been taught it was.
Elder Petersen’s Mission Memories is not a romance nor is it erotica, so don’t expect either of those things going into the book. What it is, is a memory set in the early years of the ‘70s when living as an openly gay man was next to impossible. It’s part coming-of-age story and part spiritual journey of a young man who must come to terms with the fact that who he is doesn’t coincide with who his religion demands he be. It’s the story of two young men who fall in love and are then separated by not only a continent but by one’s dedication to the church and the other’s departure from it and its teachings. The outcome of everything that happens with and to these boys was probably inevitable, but it was also necessary to their happiness.
If it was Jeff Laver’s aim to make me want to shake my fist at a religious establishment that promotes the praying away of one’s sexuality and teaches there is only one right way to be, he succeeded. If it was his aim to make me hope for Steve to realize that love is the greatest form of spirituality and that he and Randy were so much more than their religion, he succeeded there too.
I can’t say that this book will be for everyone, but if you’re willing to read something just a bit different than the usual, this book is just that.
Reviewed by: Lisa