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Mormon feminist explores gender roles in new mystery novel

"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," says mystery novelist Mette Harrison. "This can lead to abuse over and over again."

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.