“The only thing you can’t repent of is leaving the Church. Then when you die you go to Outer Darkness.” Sarah Renfro, from “The Girls From Fourth Ward” by Donna Banta
In her book, “The Girls From Fourth Ward”, the author Donna Banta draws on the key strength of fiction - she takes a real-life issue and then twists her characters into the situation in such a way that leaves you thinking “What if”? What if Mormon theology gets mis-construed in such a fashion?
This book is a murder mystery centered around the murder of the Mormon bishop Brent Loomis. The quandary in this book is the fate of four young Mormon girls, who are determined to achieve the highest level of Heaven. Since Mormon theology teaches that you can only attain the highest level of Heaven by marrying a Mormon man in the temple - and that polygamy exists in Heaven - these girls are determined to get into Brigham Young University (BYU). BYU is where all of the high-achieving Mormon boys study and is where the girls have their best shot at finding a suitable mate, so that they can spend eternity as top-tier first wives. These girls are smart, ambitious, and boxed in by the narrow expectations of life as a Mormon woman.
Standing in the girls’ way is Bishop Loomis. Loomis is, to be frank, the bishop from hell. Sanctimonious and controlling, he runs his ward with an iron fist. One of his powers as bishop is deciding whether or not to recommend students for admission to BYU. He is the roadblock standing in the way of the girls achieving the highest level of salvation. And so the girls find themselves contemplating the relative nature of sin. As one of the girls Betsy says, “You can repent of anything, even murder.”
The narrative weaves between the Lieutenant Matt Ryan, who transferred to Abbottsville for a quieter life; the four girls of Abbottsville Fourth Ward; as well as an assortment of other peripheral characters. There were a lot of characters that I recognized, both in myself and in the people around me. The sweet, naive housewife; the overworked mother of nine; the girl expected to shoulder her mother’s burden; the brainy girl who wishes for the forbidden pleasure of graduate school, her own apartment, and a dog. Donna describes the everyday details of Mormon life in a way that is very intimate and real. Reading this book brought back a lot of memories for me; memories of being a Mormon girl frustrated about the narrow future that was ahead of me.
This is a excellent book to read if you grew up as a Mormon girl or if you want to understand a little more about the frustrations of life as a Mormon woman. This is also a fun read, as Donna takes you on a romp through the darker underworld of Mormonism in such a way that you end up laughing and shaking your head at the girls that just won’t break free of their narrow world.
Donna is also the author of the very funny blog Ward Gossip, which features some of the characters portrayed in her book.