Michael Andrew Ellis

Writings, Homilies, and Parthian Shots

04 Aug 2022

Under the Cottonwoods


The Association for Mormon Letters asked me to write a blurb about Under the Cottonwoods by Douglas H. Thayer. It was included on the list of the 100 Best Works of Mormon Literature. Doug was my creative writing teacher, friend, and mentor. Here is what I came up with, but the actual blurb is shorter.


Under the Cottonwoods, the first short story collection by Douglas H. Thayer, was published in 1977 to great acclaim in the Mormon Lit community. It brings together stories released in various outlets since 1969, as well as a couple of new ones. The collection presents the early work of a writer who stands among those who represent the period in Mormon Literature known as “Faithful Realism.” Declarative sentences, packed with nouns and strong verbs, build a vision of a Utah Valley lost to us now where the innocence of youth leaves “home” and meets the evil in the world for the first time. Sometimes the evil is external. Sometimes it lurks in the hidden recesses of the heart. Thayer’s protagonists are usually young men of teenage years or older. They find themselves in circumstances where they must attempt to reconcile the gospel teachings and the saintly state those teachings aspire to with the violence, sexual transgression, war, envy, lack of fulfillment, dishonesty, and generally, the lived experience of the World.

Each story in the collection is rich with all the elements that make great fiction: detail, conflict, catharsis. However, a few deserve specific mention. “Second South,” “The Clinic,” and others explore the theme of innocence versus experience. The stories “Indian Hills” and “Zarahemla” won the 1977 AML Award for Short Fiction. In the former, a university professor confronts the death of his closest friend and his own mortality, while the latter explores the tension between holding onto a pioneer ancestor’s home or selling it for gain. “Opening Day” is a fine example of the “heart in conflict with itself,” as a young return missionary struggles to remain true to his personal commitment not to kill animals while hunting with his father and brothers. The title story, “Under the Cottonwoods” begins with a couple lines that immediately set you in the scene and make you want to read more:

Paul kept both sweaty hands on the steering wheel and breathed through his mouth. Her diaper dirty, Lisa lay just behind him in the back of the station wagon on the mattress.

The story goes on to the price paid to consistently “be an example” to others.

Under the Cottonwoods laid the foundation of Thayer’s life’s work of delineating the tensions between the Latter-day Saint cultural ideal and actual lived experience, while acknowledging the desperate need for redemption. Thayer’s work reminds us that even our everyday existence is the stuff of great stories.

Wise words: "It's always darkest before the dawn."