In the Book of Mormon, Laman and Lemuel often come across more as comic book villains more than fully fleshed out characters. As Grant Hardy put it, “In the Book of Mormon, Laman and Lemuel are stock characters, even caricatures.” In her new novel, The Book of Laman (with its cover art a stroke of brilliance), Mette Harrison implicitly poses the question: What might have been going through Laman’s head through all this? What might have led him to act the way he acted? To be clear, this is a work of fiction. Harrison makes no pretense to be doing textual inference; rather, she takes the broad events of First and Second Nephi as given and searches for a credible Laman. Her endeavor reminds me of Geraldine Brooks’s brilliant effort to flesh out David from the Old Testament in The Secret Chord.
The Laman that Harrison draws for us is deeply human and relatable. He mostly wants to do right, but he repeatedly fails not in small ways but in disastrous ways (he beat up or tried to kill his brother). She constructs a back story that explains Laman and Lemuel’s ongoing reluctance to trust their father even in the face of Sam and Nephi unwavering confidence. And she plays out what might have happened to Laman and his people after Nephi and his followers left. That time that Laman and Lemuel start beating Nephi in the process of seeking the brass plates? It comes after Nephi condescends to his brothers: “You want God to do everything for you. You want the Plates handed to you easily, without any risk.” Lemuel and then Laman snap and decide to “teach Nephi a lesson.” After a while, Laman narrates, “I should have said that he’d had plenty and backed away from him. I should have shown some self-control. But I raised the staff again and brought it down on Nephi’s head. It felt good to me. I admit it. I was that angry with him.” Where does this anger come from? Later, after an angel intervenes: “I knew that God had chosen my younger brother over me. I knew why. I didn’t have to look far to feel my own weaknesses. I wasn’t worthy to be the eldest son, the one Father entrusted the care of all his family to. No wonder Nephi had been put in charge of this mission.” Laman’s enduring feelings of inadequacy lend him to dramatic shifts of mood, including anger at his steadier, sometimes annoying younger brother. Despite this anger, Laman repeatedly wants and seeks to be better. He tries to understand his family and to serve them, until he falls short once again.
Despite this success, the novel often frustrated me. The novel glosses over what I think is one of the 1 Nephi’s most interesting exchanges — the convincing of Laban’s servant Zoram to accompany Nephi and his brothers into the wilderness. Once the brothers tackle Zoram and invite him into the wilderness — in the Book of Mormon, I’ve always been troubled by what I read as an implicit threat of further violence should Zoram fail to accept the invitation — Zoram “seemed almost mesmerized by Nephi…. He knelt before Nephi as if before an idol. ‘Please forgive me,’ he said.” And then, Zoram disappears completely from the narrative. No wife from among Ishmael’s daughters, no blessing from Lehi at the end of his days. Where does Zoram go? I realize this might sound like a reader who is annoyed when the film adaptation of her favorite book excises a beloved scene. I found the pacing uneven, sometimes drawing me in deeply and sometimes leaving me fatigued of the constant narrative in Laman’s head. The gender dynamics are surprising, with women occasionally serving as tempters: The first time Laman tries to kill Nephi, it’s at the prompting of his wife, a strong but bitter woman. At one point, before Lehi’s sons and the daughters of Ishmael marry, they all engage in a little ancient spin-the-bottle (“We threw lots and they determined who was to kiss whom”), which Nephi spurns (“This game was not of God”) until his love interest convinces him to engage.
And yet, despite a few frustrations, I find myself reflecting on Harrison’s Laman, even now, weeks after the finishing the book. I can’t get him out of my head. And for that, I thank Ms. Harrison. In her wonderful afterword, Harrison admits, “I’m still clinging on to faith by the skin of my teeth most of the time.” But, just as with her Laman, “there are bursts of brilliance that strike me now and again and convince me that there’s value in the struggle.” Truly.
- Laman at one point proposes a prototype Magic 8 Ball: “It would be great it they decided they didn’t like what [the Liahona] said, shook it up, and tried to read it again. Maybe it would say something different the second time.”
Here is what a few others are saying about The Book of Laman:
- Michael Austin, Association of Mormon Letters: “What Does The Book of Laman Think It’s Doing?”
- Mary Ann, Wheat and Tares: “Overall, I find the strength of the book in Harrison weaving into Laman’s story the difficult questions many believers ask in the course of their faith journeys.”
- Rosalyn, Segullah: “A compelling and important addition to the canon of Mormon literature”