In this year when we honor the 200th birthday of the prophet Joseph Smith, a remarkable
new historical novel series has been introduced. A Banner is Unfurled is an account of a real family who knew Joseph Smith and his family, converted to the Gospel, and gained an unshakable testimony of the man and his God-given charge. Authors Marcie Gallacher and Kerri Robinson have created few fictional characters in this work but have drawn heavily on the journals of their own ancestors and many years of research into the historical background of their family.
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By today’s standards the Johnson family is far from ordinary. Ezekiel, the child of an unmarried woman, knew only abuse and ridicule after his mother married a man in 1876, who was not his father and who resented his presence. As a young boy he ran away in search of knowledge about his real father and to end the cruelty directed toward him by his stepfather. His painful childhood left him skeptical to the point of antagonism toward God. He married a deeply religious young girl, Julia, the daughter of an old friend of his mother’s. Together they had sixteen children, fifteen of whom lived.
Ezekiel never speaks of his parents and childhood to his children. He is a deeply troubled man who holds himself in low esteem due to the circumstances of his birth. He loves his wife and children intensely and tends to blame himself when unfortunate things happen to any of them. He can’t turn to a God he doesn’t acknowledge for solace when he is troubled. Instead he turns to liquor. His intemperance is a burden to his family and it drives a wedge between him and his wife and causes one of his sons to hate him.
Forced to leave his mill partnership because of the greed of others, Joel (the oldest son) travels to Ohio to start over. He is accompanied by his brother, David. There they first come in contact with “Mormonites.” Here, too, the Johnson family begins to intersect with the Smith family and David and Don Carlos Smith become close friends. Joel’s wife Annie is the first to be baptized. Back in Pomfret Township, New York, the rest of the family – except for Ezekiel – begin studying the Book of Mormon in order to bring the older sons to their senses. Being honest people, they read the book with an open mind and a desire to know how it captured the minds of their loved ones. Persecution, the deaths of loved ones, the loss of romantic expectations, personal growth, hurt, and betrayal follow against a vivid background of early nineteenth century customs and values.
The fifteen children of Ezekiel and Julia were prolific writers and journal keepers who noted everyday details of their lives and relationships with each other and those around them. They described vividly the people they met – from children to the Prophet – which in time provided the authors of this epic with vivid details straight from the pens of those involved.. In it, we catch a picture not only of the Johnsons and Smiths, but other significant early Church leaders such as the powerful missionary Joseph Brackenbury, Lyman Sherman, and Sidney Rigdon. This is a book of the testing and questioning that those in different stages and circumstances in life bring to the study of the gospel. It’s also a story of the unselfish devotion of family members for one another and the strong women who were often the first in their families to embrace truth and the great sacrifices they made to enable the Church to grow and to become established. It’s not only a historical peek at the lives of early church members, but a vivid portrait of life in the 1820’s and 1830’s.
It’s likely many will compare this series to Gerald Lund’s powerful Work and the Glory series, as there are many similarities and it is possible the authors drew on many of the same historical sources that Lund did. But there are more differences than similarities other than where the imaginary Steeds and the real Johnsons shared the same historical facts surrounding Joseph Smith and the historically documented events of this period of history. This story is actually about the Johnsons. They aren’t a vehicle used to tell Church history as were the Steeds; they are a historically significant family in their own right. In the telling of their story, powerful testimonies of Joseph Smith’s mission are borne. There is also a powerful intimacy in the telling of the Johnsons’ story as it comes from a female perspective and it adds another layer of testimony to the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t expect to like A Banner is Unfurled. There is a terrible tendency in fiction to “rewrite” popular books. I don’t mean plagiarism, but rather a borrowing of a basic plot, repopulating it with new names, places, and identifying events in the hopes of cashing in on a popular theme. This year has been pretty well saturated with Joseph Smith books, stories, productions and movies, some of which have been excellent and I had heard this book compared to Lund’s popular series. I expected a “rewrite.” I was wrong. This book is fresh. It is new. It is exceptionally well-written and well-researched. I was especially impressed with the authors’ ability to present such a large cast of characters in a manner that never left me thumbing back through the book to see who was who. I also found it entertaining and exciting. The only aspects of the book I didn’t like were the pieces of poetry that introduced each chapter. To me they were distractions that only served to interrupt the story, even though they were written by those long ago journal keepers. My other objection is a personal preference for footnotes at the end of chapters rather than having them stuck in the back of the book where few people bother to read them or they are discovered long after the events they document are fresh in my mind.
A Banner is Unfurled turned out to be an enjoyable, rewarding read. This is a series I predict will become a major Latter-day Saint epic and I look forward to following the Johnsons as avidly as I once followed the fictitious Steeds.
Published by Covenant Communications, 390 pages, $22.95