William R. Jensen, author of a new novel about the Mormon War, said he did enough research to write a traditional work of history.
But Jensen wanted to avoid a dry account of historical fact and write in a manner that would keep readers interested.
So Jensen, 73, a Logan, Utah, resident who visited and researched Mormon historical sites in the Richmond, Liberty and Caldwell County areas, chose to retell history in a fictional format in “Adder in the Path.”
“I did a tremendous amount of research on this,” said Jensen, who was born a Mormon but for philosophical reasons has since left the faith. “I made a list of all the events that were important in the war. My idea is if you’re going to write a historical novel, I think you’ve got to follow the historical fact.”
Due for publication in January by Belle Isle publishers, the 254-page fruit of his labor is the story of two families, one Mormon, the other “gentile.” The families are caught in the suspicion, intolerance and violence of the time, and both pay dearly.
Jensen said he sees himself in the character Jake, the teenage son of a brutal Christian father who drinks heavily and abuses his wife. Jake, a naturalist who in the story comes to respect the values of Native Americans who share the river and woods, spends hours hunting the unspoiled Missouri countryside with his faithful old dog, Rufe.
“They say that when you write a book you put a lot of yourself in it and I put a lot of myself in Jake,” said Jensen, a retired procedures writer and analyst for a company that made engines for the Space Shuttle. “I love to wander the woods … I’ve always had hounds and hunted.”
On one of his hunting trips, Jake meets Jenny, a teenager who lives in Far West, the bustling Mormon town in Caldwell County. Jenny’s father, John, is a schoolteacher who lives in the shadow of a dominating wife who is a fire-breathing, intolerant Mormon.
Jake and Jenny fall in love – a sweet, natural relationship sharply at odds with the mistrust and escalating tension between the area’s “old Christian settlers” and a rapidly growing Mormon population.
But a Mormon spy spots Jenny with Jake, a sin for which church leaders feel she should be punished. Unable to deal with the harsh treatment she is subjected to, Jenny hangs herself. Her father, a gentle but unassertive man, is another casualty, as are Jake’s mother and father, both of whom later die at the hands of Mormon zealots.
Jensen portrays both sides as hostile, intolerant and violent, and said he was careful to avoid showing bias, even though he, personally, is now at odds with Mormon tenets and historical perspective.
His interest in writing about the Mormon War grew out of questions he raised growing up in the church. “We always heard the stories about the Mormons being driven out of Missouri and being driven out of Illinois,” he said. “I asked my father, “Why were the Mormons getting driven out of all those places?”
Jensen said his father responded with a stock explanation often repeated in church circles: The Mormons, he said, were God’s chosen people, and as “saints” their high standards of morality and lives free of sin drove the devil to incite violence against them.
That was especially the case, Jensen said, because of the missionary zeal that led to the Mormons’ being driven out of Independence, Liberty and, eventually, Caldwell, Ray and Daviess County.
Jensen said in “Adder in the Path” he elaborated on a long paper he wrote while studying history at Kansas State University in the early 1970s. In was around that time that he made a trip to visit Mormon history sites in and around Kansas City and visited Richmond’s Pioneer Cemetery.
“Basically, I wrote a paper at K-State on the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri,”
said Jensen. “I went to Haun’s Mill (site of a massacre of Mormon settlers) and the Liberty Jail and places like that and I think it really helped me to picture things as I was writing the book.”
Key historical figures, including Richmond residents Oliver Cowdery and Alexander Doniphan, Elder W.W. Phelps – a newspaper publisher who touched off violence with an article welcoming blacks into the Mormon church in pro-slavery Missouri – and others appear in Jensen’s book alongside the fictional characters.
“I went through your (Richmond) graveyard and a lot of the people in the book are buried there,” he said.
Although Doniphan is buried in Liberty, he’s remembered best for his time in Richmond and is commemorated here by a large statue on the west side of the courthouse. It was Doniphan’s refusal to carry out the governor’s order to execute Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders that still endears him today with church members.
“He was such an honorable man,” Jensen said.
This is Jensen’s first book. In searching for a publisher, he ran into the book world’s unique Catch 22.
“I must’ve written a couple of hundred query letters around the country,” he said. “I found if you’re unpublished it’s very difficult to get published for the first time.”
Jensen eventually found a sympathetic ear in Robert Pruitt, publisher with Brandy Lane books and with Belle Isle, a subsidiary.
As part of the publishing arrangement, Jensen said he’ll do book signings, give lectures and find people to endorse his work. He said he hopes eventually to visit historical societies and museums in the territory alluded to in “Adder in the Path,” including Richmond, Caldwell and Daviess County, Independence and Liberty.
Jensen said a goal is to drum up interest in a war, though limited in scope, is unique in American history.
“As far as generating interest among historians, I’m surprised that this didn’t do more of that,” he said of the Mormon-Missouri settler conflict. “This was one of the few real religious wars in this country.”
You can learn more about Jensen and“Adder in the Path”, as well as read an excerpt at www.adderinthepath.net.