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Wanda's Book Reviews

I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles.  (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).

Falling in Love with Joseph Smith / Jane Barnes

Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: Finding God in the Unlikeliest of Places - Jane Barnes

When award-winning documentary film writer Jane Barnes was working on the PBS Frontline/American Experience special series "The Mormons," she was surprised to find herself passionately drawn to Joseph Smith. The product of an Episcopalian, "WASPy" family, she couldn't remember ever having met a Mormon before her work on the series--much less having dallied with the idea of converting to a religion shrouded in controversy. But so it was: She was smitten with a man who claimed to have translated the word of God by peering into the dark of his hat. In this brilliantly written book, Barnes describes her experiences working on the PBS series as she moved from secular curiosity to the brink of conversion to Mormonism. It all began when she came across Joseph Smith's early writings. She was delighted to discover how funny and utterly unique he was--and how widely divergent his wild yet profound visions of God were from the Church of Latter-day Saints as we know it today. Her fascination deepened when, much to her surprise, she learned that her eighth cousin Anna Barnes converted to Mormonism in 1833. Through Anna, Barnes follows her family's close involvement with Smith and the crises caused by his controversial practice of polygamy. Barnes' unlikely path helps her gain a newfound respect for the innovative American spirit that lies at the heart of Mormonism--and for a religion that is, in many ways, still coming into its own. An intimate portrait of the man behind one of America's fastest growing religions, Falling in Love with Joseph Smith offers a surprising and provocative window into the Mormon experience.


I’ve been looking for a painless way to learn more about Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons), in order to better understand Orson Scott Card’s Tales of Alvin Maker series. After reading the first book, I was convinced that Card was using Joseph Smith as source material for many aspects of Alvin and being non-Mormon, I wanted more details to confirm or refute my theory. This memoir seemed to be a way to fulfill that desire in an enjoyable way.

Jane Barnes starts her exploration of the LDS Church as part of a TV documentary series that she is working on. She discovers that the history of Joseph Smith appeals to her sense of humour and whimsy, that she has a number of relatives (fairly distant) who have converted to Mormonism (including Smith’s “body guard” and one of Brigham Young’s wives), and that the community of the LDS church feels very comfortable to her.

Ironically, although Barnes is perfectly okay with all the LDS details, it is the Christianity part that gets in her way—she just can’t feel like she has any particular need for Christ. Despite the fact that she is truly a religious seeker, ultimately she stays on the outside of any church because she just can’t swallow that particular aspect of religion. Another interesting aspect was that she felt most at home with a polygamist LDS sect in Utah because they acknowledged and celebrated Joseph Smith more than the mainstream LDS establishment.

As a genealogist who has spent time in LDS family history centres and a person who has Mormon friends, I knew a little bit about the LDS church. I’ve been to a service, which I can confirm did feel very welcoming. I was happy to learn more accurate information about the baptizing of ancestors and I could empathize with Barnes’ wrestling with religious questions.

I did learn a fair bit about Joseph Smith, although not in the detail that I was hoping for. Back to Wikipedia for me. Recommended for those who would like a gentle introduction to the LDS faith, some historical background on the only all-American mainstream religion, or those who are enthused about memoirs.