“Even the kindest men in the church had no idea of the many ways in which they made their wives and daughters into lesser persons than their sons and fellow male church members. ‘I wouldn’t be where I am today without my wife,’ they say in testimony meetings. But what they are also saying is that their wives have given up their personal ambitions in favor of the ambitions of their husbands. Mormon men protect their daughters, but they encourage and cheer on their sons.”
Linda Wallheim is a Mormon housewife, the mother of five sons, and the wife of the ward’s bishop. She fills her days with reading and cooking, and checking in on various members of the ward who might need help. But with her youngest son poised to leave home soon, Linda finds herself wanting more, and questioning her place in the family and church. Early one morning, ward member Jared Helm turns up on the Wallheim’s doorstep with his young daughter, Kelly, claiming that his wife Carrie has left them. Suspicious of the fact that Carrie left her daughter behind, Linda begins to suspect that Jared may have harmed his wife. Still troubled by the loss of her own stillborn daughter years before, Linda becomes powerfully attached to Kelly, and determined to find out the truth about what happened to her mother.
Written by an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, The Bishop’s Wife is deeply steeped in LDS culture, and yet outward facing; an LDS audience would not need the many explanations of day-to-day life and church rituals that Harrison provides. Even the use of the common term Mormon in the book, rather than LDS, which is generally preferred by the membership, suggests that the intended audience reaches beyond the church. Harrison touches at least briefly on all of the many issues that plague public perceptions of the church, from polygamy to temple garments, and beyond. However, the views of her left-leaning and somewhat cynical protagonist will probably not be appreciated by many in the church.
Linda is a rather liberal character who was an atheist for a time before returning to the church, and her view is still coloured by those experiences, though she tends to hide her liberalism from those around her. Linda is a determined detective, but she also makes exactly the kinds of mistakes a real person might make if they decided to take investigating a crime into their own hands rather than leaving it to the police. She jumps to faulty conclusions, and is forced to reassess her assumptions again and again. Although some might find her character bumbling, I liked that she could admit that she was wrong and adjust course.
As a murder mystery, The Bishop’s Wife is somewhat slow paced. Harrison spends a lot of time on Linda’s day-to-day life, and the rituals of the church. In many ways, Harrison is more concerned with using suspicions of violence and abuse to elucidate the problematic role of women in the church, and the way the power structure privileges their fathers and husbands. The mystery seemed poised to close on a slightly ambiguous note in a manner that would not have been unrealistic, but in the last few pages, Harrison brings about not one but two improbable revelations which seem intended to bring more definite closure to the situation.
You might also be interested in Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Wiley.