Many LDS fiction readers waited anxiously for Gale Sears’s Until the Dawn after being captivated by Autumn Sky in 2004. They will not be disappointed. Few LDS literary novels have captured an audience as wide as that enjoyed by these two volumes written by Sears.
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The terms genre and literary are ambiguous and open to numerous interpretations, but I tend to use genre to describe works that follow particular conventions or expectations as do popular romance, science fiction, mystery, suspense, and western novels. When a reader picks up a genre novel, he has certain expectations as to the dilemma presented, the obstacles encountered, and the final resolution. These novels tend to use less formal prose and dialog and are generally plot oriented.
I find literary novels to be less conventional or predictable. The language is usually more formal, and frequently there is greater stress on internal conflicts than plot resolution. These are overly simplified definitions, and I hope no one will use them to suggest one type of novel is superior to the other. They can each be well-written and rewarding. Until the Dawn fits my definition of literary, but at the same time has the strong appeal of a genre novel.
Alaina is dealing with the painful loss of her father and her beloved farm, complicated by a hasty marriage to a man she does not love. After a long journey, they arrive in Salt Lake City, a place that is totally alien to all she has ever known, to live with her husband = s mother. Her mother-in-law is the abandoned second wife of a Mormon polygamist who chose to remain with his first wife when the Manifesto forced him to choose between his two families. Family relationships are complicated, and Alaina = s attitude toward her husband, his family, and the strange religion she encounters add to her sense of loss and isolation.
Alaina’s sister, Eleanor, also finds herself displaced in a society she finds lacking, and among people (her deranged mother and selfish, spoiled little sister) she finds difficult to bear. Unlike Alaina, who dwells on her hurt and loss, Eleanor tries to circumvent the stiff social rules of San Francisco society and finds herself in trouble.
A third character, only briefly touched on in Autumn Sky, takes a prominent role in Until the Dawn. Spinster school teacher Philomene Johnson travels to Europe with plans to stay with an older, dear friend in Belgium. Her vacation begins in a rewarding manner, but deteriorates rapidly into a frightening struggle for survival as Germany invades the small country and leaves her fighting for survival and to get back home.
Sears treats a number of social issues tha were of paramount importance during the early twentieth century. These include women’s rights, education, the plight of minorities, and the impact and divergent opinions concerning American isolationism. She also deals with those issues that affected turn-of-the-century Mormonism as the Church was forced to face the disruption of families by the Manifesto, the impact of statehood, and the intrusion of the world into their isolated valley sanctuary in the mountains.
Characters in this novel are multi-dimensional and are not always likable, but neither are they static. Their growth changes not only the characters, but also the reader’s reaction to them, making some characters more likable and some less. The author does an excellent job of making less likable characters better understood, bringing greater understanding of these people to her other characters and to her readers. Like William Faulkner, she has a knack for portraying minor characters in a way that gives them greater importance and prevents them from becoming stereotypes.
Because it is set in the pre World War I era, when there was greater emphasis on manners and social customs than is found today and life seemed to generally run at a slower pace, some readers may find this novel more difficult to follow than the popular genres they are more accustomed to, but it holds insights into human thought and behavior that suit any time period. Until the Dawn is truly a worthwhile read.
Published by Covenant Communications, 311 pages, $15.95