Book Review: A Most Extraordinary, Everyday Family Story of Coming to the New World, 1660-2016.

Review by William D. Morain

‘Professor Clyde R. Forsberg’s deeply personal tenth book continues the engaging style of his previous work, portraying this time the eventful struggles of his own forebears—from Sweden, Switzerland, Holland, Scotland, and England. Tracing the disparate strains of his ancestry back to the seventeenth century, he abandons any hagiographic importunities, describing instead the raw realities of his family’s Mormon emigration to the United States and Utah. Theirs is not a pretty story, for as he states at the outset:

[M]y extended and distended family is worthy of study, not because of alleged distinguished affiliations, but a conspicuous lack thereof…not to perpetrate a genealogy of nobility…but rather a chronicle of nobodies for the most part…for the objective in this instance is to give voice to the voiceless, to turn silence into noise that begs to be felt, if not heard per se. (xvii)

The common thread weaving through the family was the outcome of conversion    to Mormonism in Europe or in the US northeast, and—through handcart, wagon, or train—on a muddling passage toward the promised land in Utah. But, in large measure, because of the “somewhat tragic devotion to polygamy,” Forsberg describes a largely wretched odyssey of starvation, exhaustion, heartbreak, and death—often from too many mouths to feed.

Much of Mormon apologetic biography seems to channel Thomas Carlyle’s nineteenth century view that history is but the biography of great men. In Mormon terms, this would portray the optimistic visage of those stalwart leaders persisting in the face of senseless persecution as the movement’s very zeitgeist—and by extension—how such nobility would become effigized among the minions through morality tales of unbroken spirits facing the slings and arrows.

But Forsberg’s book is a thundering antithesis to all this. He instead casts a pall of stark realism over the “All Is Well” theme of Mormon lore. There are few happy endings in the generations portrayed here and it is Forsberg’s acute empathy for the horrid reality of the women’s burden in the pageant that drives the narrative.

In particular, Forsberg’s book centers on the consequences for the wives of the Mormon underbelly of polygamy—not as the necessary precursor to some remote glory—but as the organizing principle of family life under the millstone of abject penury. As Forsberg comments on the high infant and child mortality rate among his progenitors:

Were too many pioneer Mormon mothers asked to bear too many children all at once, unable to care for them, lacking the sheer strength, if not means, to provide the basic necessities of life? Husbands were away on foreign missions much of the time, gathering the Saints to Zion, often arriving home with some other young woman on their arm. Mormon men of the period were not averse to taking additional wives and, of course, impregnating them with reckless abandon. Were the sickly children born of these polygamous marriages not doomed to break under the weight of childhood disabilities (physical and mental), assuming such children did not have the good fortune to die in their cribs? Was it a case of the freedom to practice one’s religion and have all the children some poor woman might be able to conceive and bring into the world come what may, and thus it was a matter of something grossly irresponsible? It might not prove quite so difficult to identify correctly the biological parents of our own great grandmother in this case had Mormonism kept its dictates in its pants, so to speak. (96)

There were a handful of exceptional family members who did manage to escape the fate of that vast majority. The most notable, Ambrose Swasey (1846-1937), was a non-Mormon New Englander from the English branch of the maternal family who subscribed instead to the social gospel tradition of Walter Rauschenbusch. His principal distinction was as an engineer, retooling an entire department at Pratt and Whitney and earning many patents for precision instruments. He was also honored in astronomy for his expertise in telescope manufacturing. His lifetime list of international awards and honors in elite scientific organizations is matched only by his philanthropic pursuits. But, he and his wife contributed no children.

A second notable from the maternal Swasey line was Rodney DeGrass (1832-1898) who fled Utah for the California gold fields, returning seven years later a rich man. He raised horses and cattle in Provo as well as nineteen children from his two wives. Despite his prominence as bank founder and community leader, he neglected to educate his children, though only one would go on to participate in polygamy.

It would be futile to list all of the progeny of the many European family lines in this short review. Suffice it to say that all had unique stories behind their shared motivation. Forsberg describes that commonality as an outgrowth of the new industrial economy that disrupted continental life’s previous stability. The offer of a new and enchanted life across the ocean urged them to uproot themselves to seek for their children the wellbeing that their grandparents had known. In Forsberg’s words:

But most were simply crushed under the weight of their credulity—economic and religious—evading Federal Marshalls much of the time, going to prison for having multiple wives and more children, frankly, than they knew what to do with, all of it how they hoped to build the Kingdom of God in these, the latter days. (307)

Thus, says Forsberg, his progenitors became true “Saints” in the medieval sense:

A people of faith who gloried in misery and suffering…And while they did not nail themselves to a cross and hang upside down to demonstrate their love of the Lord, those pioneer Mormon mothers of all those children might have chosen that over their ignoble, daily, thankless tortures. (307)

The detailed text of the book is buttressed by a comprehensive family tree diagram containing nearly nine hundred named family members with origins and birth/death dates. In addition, the book is richly supplemented with over three hundred photographs, a lengthy bibliography, and scores of period anti-Mormon cartoons. Forsberg gratefully acknowledges his enormous debt to the genealogic resources of the LDS church and others that permitted the book to take form.

The author himself is no stranger to up-rootedness, having been born to Latter-day Saint parents in Logan, Utah, the oldest of 14 children, and raised in Monterey, California, and Ottawa, Canada. He served a mission in Scotland, married and divorced, left the LDS church, and emigrated to Central Asia where he married a Muslim woman with whom he has had two more children. He currently teaches liberal arts as Professor in the Department of General Education at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgystan. (Full disclosure: he also serves as a longstanding and treasured member of the editorial board of the JWHA Journal.)

As an iconoclast historian, Forsberg has written a book that may bring discomfort to many in the LDS tradition, albeit an accurate and detailed portrayal of what he discovered in his family record. The work thus adds a measure of balance to the church’s multifaceted story.’

– Bill Morain is a graduate of Graceland and Grinnell Colleges and Harvard Medical  School. Following a career as Professor of Plastic Surgery at Dartmouth Medical School, he moved to Lamoni, Iowa, for his retirement. He is author of The Sword of Laban: Joseph Smith Jr. and the Dissociated Mind and serves as editor of the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s