Mormon feminist explores gender roles in new mystery novel

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TheBishop's WifeWith starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Booklist and a prominent mention on PW’s list of the “most anticipated books of Fall 2014,” Mette Harrison’s mystery novel The Bishop’s Wife is poised for success when it hits bookstores this week. (Click here to hear an NPR interview from “Weekend Edition Saturday,” and here for the New York Times review.)

Mette, as many of you know, is a monthly guest columnist here at Flunking Sainthood, regularly sharing her thoughtful reflections on Mormon faith and culture. We are lucky to have her.

In the story, Linda Wallheim, the stay-at-home wife of a Mormon bishop, takes up amateur sleuthing when a young woman in her ward [congregation] disappears under strange circumstances.

I talked with Mette about the book, its observations about Mormon life, and what we can expect next from the series.

RNS: You’ve posted before on this blog about how you lost a child and then went through a dark night of the soul. How did writing this novel, in which Linda has lost a child, connect with that experience?

Mette Harrison: Writing this book was an act of faith. I was trying to become someone who could believe again. I think in my heart I was still an atheist, so I wrote about the kind of woman I wanted to become—intelligent and faithful and kind.

RNS: Is there anything in the book that might make Mormon readers uncomfortable?

MH: Lots of things. The view of the world is so different from the average Mormon’s. I have this experience at church where when I ask questions, it feels as if people don’t want to hear them. Linda is like that — she asks lots of questions and is fine that there aren’t always clear answers. Mormons like to say we have the answers to all the important questions. Mormonism is dear to my heart and I love it, but there are many questions that it does not answer. To say otherwise is like a deliberate blinding.

RNS: The story dives deeply into the experience of being a Mormon woman, and what gender divisions exist.

MH: The book is all about men and women’s roles within the church. I’m not trying to point fingers. Patriarchy harms men as much as women. The structure of patriarchy—and this is not unique to Mormonism at all—tells men that it’s appropriate for them to wield power over women, that it’s right and good for them to be in charge. This can lead to abuse over and over again.

We label men as stake presidents and we pretend that they are without blemish, that they can do no wrong. In a patriarchal society, that kind of power is so dangerous. And it’s as bad for men as it is for women, because it puts them into situations where it’s almost impossible not to abuse power. That’s why Kurt [the bishop, Linda’s husband] is such a saint in the book. He never abuses the power that he has.

Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison

RNS: Your advance reviews have been terrific. What has the response been from early readers?

MH: So far, it’s been overwhelmingly positive, which makes me very happy. I feel I aim for two audiences. I wanted to write to non-Mormons and show them a Mormon woman who was not oppressed, but strong. My view of Mormon women from the inside is that there are so many extraordinary examples.

The second audience is Mormons themselves. I hope that there are Mormon women out there who read this book and say, “That woman is like me.” I want the book to create a community of women who can connect to each other. It’s hard sometimes within a ward to find that community of women who are like you. I’ve already had so many readers come to me and say, “You have spoken what I have been afraid to say.” That is what I want to do.

RNS: What’s coming next for the bishop’s wife?

MH: I am contracted for a sequel, which is coming out a year after the first book. I have in my head planned out nine total books in the series, and I have written some of them. My editor and I have talked about how they fit together. Linda needs to go through each of the experiences I have planned for her in each book in order to end up where I want her to be in book 9.

What I love about mysteries is that they’re an enormous canvas for character development. I can’t think of another genre that allows you to narrow into a single character and what happens with that character over time.


  • I loved this book! I’m reading it again before I wrote my review.

  • Jack

    Like so much else, feminism and gender roles were debated and discussed extensively in the late 1960s and 1970s by the baby-boomer generation, but today’s Millennials seem to think it’s a brand-new thing they’ve suddenly discovered.

    Back then, it was genuinely revolutionary and new. Today, it is just a boring, conformist rehash of what was said 40 years ago.

    What the baby boomers learned in the 1980s and 1990s was that while there must be as much gender equality in the workplace as possible, most women still prefer men to be leaders, especially in relationships. A somewhat twisted example is the mass popularity of “50 Shades of Grey.” I doubt that women would be buying that book en masse if it was about a woman dominating a man.

    Bottom line is that what we are doing now is reinventing wheels…..the conclusions we will reach as a society will be the same ones the boomers learned in the last two decades of the last century: Feminism works, but only up to a point.

    The big difference today, though, is that the tyranny of political correctness will make it far more difficult for the Millennials to write honestly about their learning experiences when they reach their 30s and 40s than boomers did once they learned how life really works.

  • Jack: First, the author is not a Millennial, but a Gen Xer. Also, the interview makes clear that she has been knocked around enough by life that she’s hardly naive, nor is she a victim of “the tyranny of political correctness.”

    Finally, and most importantly, feminism will continue rehashing the same themes and pushing for gender equality so long as that equality continues to elude us, as it still does in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If you are bored with hearing the same notes sounded again and again by feminists, then pitch in and help to solve the problems we are seeking to address.

  • HB from sc

    It’s not about it being a new issue! Racism and feminism have been old issues since at least the turn of the last-last century. No, wait, they are biblical issues as well.

    Our generation didn’t discover feminism. It want discovered in the 1960’s/70’s either. It want discovered by the suffragettes. It is as old as time. W keep talking about it because it’s still a problem, not because were so proud of ourselves for making a new discovery. Just like with other issues, let’s day racism, or sexual slavery, children being raised in war zones, or any other horrible thing… Each new generation realizes they have a responsibility as they become adults and realize the issues are STILL THERE. It’s the lazy people, the ones who wonder why were still winning about injustices in the world, who wish we would just shut up and go back to talking about pictures of sushi on Facebook… Those are the people I worry most about, because they are living selfish lives,

    Authors must write what they live. It makes their words ring with truth. Pretending these issues do not face our culture in the LDS church, or that it’s “all better” in or country… This would be bad writing.

  • Jack

    Jana, I do pitch in, where the need is most acute: overseas. Standing up against global human trafficking generally and sexual slavery against women particularly is one example. Demanding that girls be able to exercise the same right to an education as boys in places like Afghanistan as they do here in the West is another. Standing against genital mutilation is another.

    Once we take a truly global perspective on inhumanity and injustice, our priorities change accordingly.

  • Jack

    HB, hang nails aren’t fun, but cancer is worse. At a time where anyone with access to the Internet knows what is happening to women in much of the world, complaining about a bunch of old guys in a church who think it’s still the 1950s seems almost trivial.

    The cynical part of me says it’s done because it’s safe. The old guys won’t respond with beheadings or terror attacks. The real oppressors of women overseas just might.

    Worse, once we start talking about the degradation of women in such places, it forces upon us the unsettling question:

    What are we going to do about it?

  • AnotherView

    I have bought this book and I am looking forward to reading it.

    However, on the issue of Mormon patriarchy, I know this won’t be popular, but I am a Mormon guy who thinks women have much more control in Mormon marriages than non-LDS marriages. They control sex and they control how many children the family has. Most LDS men go along with what their wives want almost all the time. “Yes dear” are the most common words in a Mormon male’s vocabulary. Also, it is a standing joke in almost every male priesthood quorum meeting that women have the privilege of bagging on their husbands whenever they feel like it, but God help the male who ever criticizes his wife.

    I have heard hundreds of talks in my life where men are chided to be better husbands, to not be abusive, to not look at porn, to be kind to their spouses and children, to be considerate and patient. Hundreds of them. I have only heard one talk in my entire life where women have been counseled to pay attention to their husbands concerns, wants, needs and feelings–just one!! I am not kidding here. Women are put on a pedestal as if only the men ever do anything wrong in relationships.

    I know of at least 5 LDS men whose wives have told them, “I don’t like sex and I am not doing it any more.” All but one of those guys is just simply living with the situation–they are more or less Mormon monks. The exception is a guy who has had relationships outside of marriage, and he was excommunicated for it. Everybody else in the church that I know just takes it.

    My non-LDS friends who have sex problems in their marriages all cheat on their wives. I know many, many men who are not LDS who have all sorts of extra-marital stuff going on. Not one of my LDS friends, except the guy I mentioned above does, and the reason is exactly what happened to him–the church won’t tolerate it and kicks your butt out.

    So LDS men don’t cheat, almost no matter how their wife treats them. And they can’t divorce either. If an LDS guy ever did divorce, he would never be given a serious calling again. No bishoprics, high council’s or anything like that. Not only that, socially, he would be treated much differently than someone who is faithful.

    Like it or not, the woman has some big hammers in the LDS relationships between husbands and wives. Way more than non-LDS. It is not even close.

    And as far as the complaint that the church doesn’t listen to women, I’ve got news for you, it don’t really listen much to anybody–man or woman. When was the last time anybody got asked for their opinion about anything, or for feedback about a calling they just finished serving in? How about never.

    The only positions locally with any real power in the LDS church are Bishop and Stake President. Nobody else, male or female, has much power.

    I personally have no problem with giving women the priesthood and letting them serve in these positions and be General Authorities too. I wish we would give these opportunities to them. I have no doubts about their capabilities.

    But please don’t tell me women are dominated in the LDS church. I don’t believe it a second.

    I realize I am going to get forty kinds of hell for saying this. But this is sincerely how I feel.

  • Nobody Important

    “We label men as stake presidents and we [insert straw-man argument] pretend that they are without blemish, that they can do no wrong. In a patriarchal society, [tear down straw-man] that kind of power is so dangerous.”

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  • Jen K.

    It seems like this game is being played: “Well *this* pain is worse, therefore *your* pain doesn’t count.”

    It all counts.

    Of course there are horrors happening around the globe. Having a discussion about something we might alleviate here and now doesn’t mean we don’t care (or aren’t doing anything ) about atrocities elsewhere.

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