Alfred Woollacott III has a huge family tree bristling with pioneer personalities and risk takers. The longtime Island resident has been busy for the past several years, climbing out on some nether branches to research several family members’ lives in historically relevant times. Mr. Woollacott combines painstaking, fact-rich research and literary skillfulness to put us in a fictionalized version of their lives.
In 2014, Mr. Woollacott gave us “The Immigrant,” based on the life of his progenitor, John Law, a 14-year-old Scots lad set down as an indentured servant in Concord, in 1650.
In “The Believers in the Crucible Nauvoo,” Mr. Woollacott tells the story of a distant-generation aunt, Naamah Kendall Jenkins Carter, of Peterborough, N.H., whose journey would take her far from New England, ultimately to Salt Lake City, where she would live her days as one of 19 wives of Brigham Young, leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), familiarly known as the Mormon Church.
I’ll tell you the truth. I loved “The Immigrant” from page one; a brilliant first effort. But I didn’t love “The Believers” from the outset, not even close. Naamah was a precocious 6-year-old in 1827 in the bosom of a large New England family teeming with Laws and Taggarts et al., but we sense that will change. Because at that time, several hundred miles away, Joseph Smith, a young man from Sharon, Vt., was busy creating — or translating, depending on your view of events — the Book of Mormon, an alternative approach to religious sociology unlike the hard-bitten predestined view of salvation under which New Englanders had been raised for nearly two centuries.
Unlike the Cotton Mather fire and brimstone your-fate-is-predetermined approach, the Book of Mormon message promised a personal relationship with God through his “prophet” and elders.
As modern-day LDS literature has it, “The book was written to inspire readers to make decisions that would ultimately improve their lives and bring them closer to God. It was the authors’ hope that their words would lead people to Jesus Christ and change behaviors; would lift sadness, uncertainty, and fear; would offer purpose and direction to people’s outlook on life; and would give people evidence that God is still ‘a God of miracles.’” In other words, give the folks some hope.
It worked. By the mid-1840s, local records unearthed by Mr. Woollacott show that 116 Peterborough residents (total population: about 2,000) had signed up for the program.
Now the story begins to grab the reader. Promised the prospect for a personal, loving relationship with God, the numbers of “Saints” grew as they began a diaspora West, building temples and communities in Ohio, Missouri, and in Nauvoo, Ill., always harried by locals with rumors of financial fraud and polygamy swirling, generally getting out of town one step ahead of the sheriff or local militia.
Naamah joins the Saints in Nauvoo after Joseph Smith is killed in a gun battle and as Brigham Young, a fellow Vermonter, takes charge and moves 10,000 believers to the wilds of Utah, where the LDS has prospered.
Now, what happens is that you become a fan as you read Naamah’s words and thoughts, her ongoing searching dialogue with her Lord, drawn from correspondence and reports by Mr. Woollacott. You want this young woman to be safe and happy. I was telling her to stay in Peterborough, that Brigham’s desire to “seal” with her as a multiple wife was a hustle, that one-way conversations rarely produce good outcomes.
But as her story rolls out, the thought occurs that the decisions were Naamah’s to make; ultimately she was free to make them. She had become an independent woman, a free soul. And wasn’t that the point in the first place?
On Saturday, Jan. 13, from 4 to 5 pm at the West Tisbury library, author Alfred Woollacott will read from his new novel, “The Believers in the Crucible Nauvoo,” the second book in a planned trilogy. Refreshments will be served. This event is free and open to the public.