Thursday, October 1, 2009

Heather Moore: ALMA vs. Maia

Heather Moore was gracious enough to let me read her new novel, ALMA, and I am glad I did. I haven't read too much fiction for her intended audience, so this was somewhat new for me. I recommend it to anyone interested in having the life of Alma the Elder from the BOOK OF MORMON more fleshed out. I also recommend it to anyone otherwise interested in reading fast-paced fiction involving elements of romance, friendship, and religious devotion.

For me, the book ALMA is misnamed, though.

Its predominant character, for me, is Maia, wife of the malevolent King Noah, the chief, if subtle, romantic hero, or, if you will, romantic interest, in the novel. Maia's story is much more compelling than Alma's; in fact, Maia's story is gripping enough for me to read the entire book despite any other defects, such as why Moore starts out in Amulon's point-of-view: "Amulon stared at the king's red face," she writes in her opening line, "wondering if he'd ever hated a man more."

Now that's a nice, strong, and potent sentence (although I couldn't help smiling, and having the author's name so clearly in mind, as I read, " . . . a man MoOre.") And there's no question but that Amulon lives up to that first characterization of him, and even finds a man to hate greater than he hates the king with the red face. But, I ask, where are Alma and Maia in these first few pages? They are reference material. I don't know if I've ever started a published novel in the antagonist's point-of-view with the protagonist in the background. Do you recall any?

Well, for me, it was disturbing. In analyzing it, I couldn't help thinking of some favorite characters: "My suffering left me sad and gloomy," says protagonist Pi Patel from LIFE OF PI; "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow," says Scout from TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD. And THE ROAD starts out, "When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. " It is clearly in the protagonist's point-of-view. Even Orson Scott Card's SARAH --- not that it's a favorite of mine, but it does inhabit a similar genre --- starts: "Sarai was ten years old when she saw him first."

Anyway, this Amulon character is, at the outset of the novel, a high priest in King Noah's court, an old friend of Alma's before Alma "got religion." Although, to be accurate, it's actually before Alma gets "true" religion, for Alma had been a high priest in the religious order in the king's court already. So, in its essence, the story is the juxtaposition of orthodoxy and apostasy, with Amulon serving as the prototype for the one, and Alma as the ideal for the other.

It seemed that the main characters in the novel --- Alma and Amulon, in particular, --- were drawn so sweetly good and grotesquely bad, without much (any?) ambiguity at all; that there were no real struggles with temptation or any need for repentance. Their minds were made up; they were where they were and what they had become, and it seemed there was little or no chance for them to change. Even if characters always chose right . . . or wrong --- And that just doesn't happen, does it? --- it seems some struggle with temptation to do evil or desire to repent ought to be evident, and that struggle ought to be conveyed in a work of fiction. Even prophets admit failings, weaknesses. But Alma is " . . . inside his soul . . . truly free. He was true to his convictions, his faith, his Lord. His increasing burdens were made light . . ." From outset to the end, it seemed to me.

Whether or not one accepts the BOOK OF MORMON as a historical document --- and there are adherents of the Mormon faith who don't or who place some limitations on it --- this admixture of what is clearly fiction with the chronologies and language from Mormon scripture is an interesting, and at times compelling, phenomenon. I've read Diamant's THE RED TENT, which is based upon Old Testament characters, and enjoyed it very much, but, for me, reading a character out the BOOK OF MORMON, seemed a uniquely new and exciting adventure. Of course, such an undertaking is nothing new to Moore , who has already written about ABINADI from the BOOK OF MORMON, winning, I see, various awards within a growing audience for doing so.

Now, Moore does a great job fleshing out the basic narrative of Alma and his contemporaries in her novel, using a cast of other interesting characters: Helam and Raquel, King Noah, Amulon, Jachin and Lael, Gideon, and, especially, Maia. She does so using both animate and inanimate characteristics from her source material, making the story more interesting and forceful than the original text. Readers --- at least this one --- are less likely to fall asleep or get bored reading this kind of story, where they can identify with and become more invested in the characters, the relationships, and the places the characters visit and experience, than when simply reading raw scriptures without any ancillary imagination --- not that people ever do that, of course. The orthodox believer will perhaps scoff and scorn, saying that the spirit works only through the original text. My experience, and it appears many others', differs.

At the end of the day, however, I felt closer to Maia than I ever did to Alma. But, like I said above, it was well worth my time and effort to read ALMA and to be obliged to consider more fully his life and story.

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