This statement quoted by President Packer in a fireside on February 1, 1976, and later printed in the Ensign, was made by Orson F. Whitney in the early days of the Church. President Packer was voicing his disappointment in the artists, writers, and musicians of that day (1976) who were clearly not using their talents to aspire to this goal. I have kept that statement close to me as I have written all my books, hoping someday someone would stand on my shoulders and reach this exalted position.
As I read H.B. Moore’s latest book, Ammon, I suddenly realized that that day has arrived. Before you take issue with me on this weighty matter, remember two things. What was the greatest criticism of Shakespeare? That he never wrote anything original. All his plots were derived from legend, history, or myths. What Shakespeare did that earned him the title of “the bard for the ages,” was that he likened these stories to human experience. He drew out of them insights and conflicts that were very accessible to the human mind, not only in his day, but in all the days until the present time. Shakespeare put you in the story and made you face its conflicts. In so doing, he gave these stories a kind of immortality. He gave us heroes and villains with faces, bodies, parts, and passions.
And what of Milton? Didn’t he take his work directly from the Gospel as he knew and understood it? Didn’t he make us participators in his perception of eternal progression? Like Shakespeare, he likened his writings unto us, his readers, so that we could participate as fully as possible in the choices involved in the human drama that is mortality.
Moore does exactly the same thing with Ammon, that great, towering hero of the Book of Mormon. She has written many other books about the heroes of this scripture, but never with the flesh and blood immediacy of Ammon. The way she has accomplished this is by taking what is written, and just as Shakespeare did, studying the brief information to envision unwritten personal reactions, consequences, complications, tests of faith, and all manner of things that might have resulted from the miracles and testimony which Ammon bore to his deadly enemies.
For instance, what do you imagine was the fate of those who were scattering King Lamoni’s flocks? How did they react to the deaths of their comrades? Who exactly were they? Do you imagine they would have been converted by Ammon’s preaching?
What about all the priests and priestesses of the existing temples built to idols? The priests lived off the people. Do you imagine they would have been easily converted?
What would have been the position of King Lamoni himself in regards to his people? Wouldn’t have he had to give up his reign as a virtual dictator in order to allow freedom of religion? What would he and Ammon have done if they were opposed by armed and dangerous rebels who refused to be converted by a Nephite? How would the common man have reacted to accusations that Ammon was only there to create political unrest, so that they might be weakened in the eventuality of a Nephite attack?
Would Ammon have fallen in love? How would this have complicated his missionary labors?
I can almost guarantee that if one puts ones mind to the seemingly simple, heroic story given in the scriptures, one will find many, many consequences and possible story lines to follow. One of the looming, almost insurmountable differences between most of us and H.B. Moore is that we don’t know what she knows about life at that time. With Moore’s capabilities as an historian and a storyteller, the world of the Book of Mormon opens up like a 3-D movie. The smallest detail of life in that age is portrayed with a mastery that makes it seem unremarkable. Her details don’t shout “look what I know,” but rather slip into the story naturally and almost unnoticed. This is a phenomenal achievement.
As for the storytelling, Shakespeare couldn’t have done better! The suspense that builds through the story between Ammon and the unbelievers and that culminates in their capture of his beloved is stellar. Here is a story you know, and yet Moore endows it with natural consequences and elements that seem absolutely real. You all know the ending, and yet, I promise you, this masterful work will keep you up past your bedtime. After reading this book, you will realize that Ammon had to have been a much greater hero than the “superman” who lopped off the arms of the rebels at the waters of Sebus!
In terms of President Packer’s plea for this kind of literature, I hope we LDS writers will all take a lesson from Moore in writing to the greatest measure of our talent and using that talent to help people liken heroes, even everyday heroes, to themselves. There is great comfort and a blessed peace in knowing the things we know because of the Gospel. Even though it is more politically correct to write about the ills of society, let us celebrate the triumph of the Spirit!
And what of those of us who are not writers? What lesson can we take from this fulfillment of Elder Whitney’s prophesy? I truly believe it is what the Lord has demonstrated again and again. I know H.B. Moore. I hope she will not be uncomfortable with my revelation of the fact that she is first and foremost a wife and a mother. In fact, she has quite a handful of very active children. She never misses a game (and they are an athletic crew). Her husband and children are always her first concern. Not an ivory tower writer with a powerful literary agenda, she lives, outwardly at least, a normal life. However, she has a date with the Spirit every morning at five a.m., when she sits down to write. Those few hours that she has to create her stories are magnified. The Lord is there to give her what she needs to do this particular mission in the limited time she has.
H.B. Moore is a mother and a wife. In the time she wrests from hours when others are sleeping, she is also a masterful writer. Once again, the Lord has taken a seemingly ordinary being and helped her to accomplish great things.