by Joyce DiPastena
I recently reviewed a book as part of my LDS Fiction Summer Book Trek 2008 reading challenge. The book I reviewed was Dante’s Daughter, by LDS author Kimberley Heuston. If you’d like to read my review, you can do so on my JDP NEWS blog. There was one comment I deliberately left out of that review, however, as I was trying to review it for a “mixed”, rather than an “LDS”, reader audience, and I wasn’t quite sure how to phrase it so that a non-LDS reader of my review would understand my complaint. Or perhaps my concern was that bringing up this complaint would ruin a scene for a non-LDS reader who would have no basis for seeing what I saw in it, and hence, might be moved by the scene, rather than finding themselves rolling their eyes, as I did. But since the scene is the type that does, indeed, bother me as an LDS reader—or perhaps, “annoy” would be a better term than “bother”—I wanted to share my reaction somewhere among other LDS readers and see what they (or in this case, you, my lucky ANWA sisters!) think.
To place the book in context: Dante’s Daughter is a fictionalized account of the life of the medieval poet Dante Alighieri’s only daughter. (Yes, the Dante who authored The Inferno, and the rest of the Divine Comedy.) So here was my problem. I was reading along, swept away by Kimberley Heuston’s extraordinary lyrical writing style, thoroughly enjoying in particular every scene that Dante appeared in. Yes, there are spiritual elements of the novel throughout, but they don’t feel at all contrived because the Middle Ages was a deeply spiritual age, and hence fit naturally into the story. Then, towards the end of the book as Dante approaches old age, he relates to his daughter a dream he had many, many years before. Now, I have not read enough about Dante to know whether he did, indeed, have a dream that inspired him to write the Divine Comedy, but great artists do, indeed, sometimes have such inspirational dreams, so I was ready to buy into the possibility that this might be a true event. However, then Dante went on to describe the dream to his daughter, at which point the scene lost such credibility with me, that I admit, I had difficulty recovering for the remainder of the book.
My problem, as I say, was not in Dante having a dream, but in Dante having this particular dream. Now tell me, does this sound familiar to anybody besides me? (Okay, this is edited for the sake of space. In the spirit of full disclosure, the author did throw in a few elements to vary the scene a bit from the original source, but there was no misunderstanding that source of these particular lines, at least to me!)
Dante: “I looked for the laurel tree and the meadow with the fountain, but I could not find them. A dark mist arose, and a noise, lots of noises—groans and whispers and creakings—but no words. Nothing you could hold on to. I felt the earth falling away from me, and in the moment when I was sure I would be swallowed up by a chaos that was so profound that I could not see or hear or touch or name it, I called out to God…. [T]he tentacles of darkness that seemed to be growing over me fell away like dried husks from the vine, and I found myself on a mountain with a woman dressed in white. She asked me what I wanted, and I said to see the tree of my mother’s dream. She pointed, and there it was, and I ate of the fruit , and drank of the fountain, and I was filled…. My companion asked me if I knew what I was feasting on. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It is the love of God, shedding itself abroad in the heats of men.’ Then she asked me again what I desired, and I told her I wanted to share the sweetness of the fruit with the people I loved. When I said it, I meant you and your mother and your brothers, but then she said, ‘Look!’ and I saw crowds of people, all looking for the tree, and I realized I loved them all. I called to them, but a mist of darkness arose and a Babel of voices, and I could be neither heard nor seen. Then she said again, ‘Look!’ and I looked, and I saw angels writing the book of heaven and earth, and prophets writing the book of God…”
Okay, I think that’s enough to give you the idea. Let’s be honest now. Am I the only one who recognized Lehi’s dream/Nephi’s vision from the Book of Mormon in this? I fully expected the “great and spacious building” to pop up any moment, and although it never did, I’m pretty sure that’s where those “Babel of voices” were coming from.
Now, as I said, I was perfectly willing to buy that Dante may have had a dream…but that he had Lehi’s dream? That turned into a complete non-starter for me, and so jerked me out of the narration of the story that I had serious difficulty ever climbing comfortably back in.
Is it just me? What do you think about authors who…let us be kind here, and say “borrow” so directly from Book of Mormon scriptures when writing a book aimed at a non-LDS audience? Particularly when the vision (or dream) “borrowed” is portrayed as originating elsewhere (in this case, with Dante), rather than with Lehi and Nephi, as we know it did. Perhaps one might argue that the Lord sent a similar dream to Dante to inspire him. But even if that were the case, is it likely that Dante would use nearly the exact words to describe his dream? (Right down to the angel repeatedly saying, “Look!”)
I’m just curious to know how other LDS readers (i.e., you!) feel. Would such a scene as the one I’ve quoted above have bothered you, or would you have enjoyed the LDS “touch”? And what of a non-LDS reader who read this passage, then later read the “original” version in the Book of Mormon? Might they feel, in retrospect, that the author was trying to manipulate them with her religion by inserting a Book of Mormon scene into her novel about medieval Italy?
I’m open to all opinions here. Please let me know what you think!