It was a big deal to central Florida Mormons when the Orlando Temple opened its doors in 1994–not just because prior to its construction, the closest Latter-Day Saints temple was a whopping seven hours away in Atlanta; my mom would drive up with her single friends and they would get Steak ‘n Shake on the way and it seemed to be the greatest joy of her life, after her precious daughters of course–but also because with it came the temple bookstore, Boyd’s Books. When I was baptized at age eight and received my first four-in-one, the maroon leather scriptures with my gold-embossed name on the cover came from Boyd’s. When we went to the temple on my mother and stepfather’s wedding day, my grandmother took me to Boyd’s to pick something out for the weekend I would be spending at her house. And when I turned twelve and was old enough for youth trips to the temple, we always hit Boyd’s beforehand, where I eventually picked up novels one through six of Lael Littke’s Bee Theres series.
Marybeth, Becca, Carlie, Elena, Sunshine, Ducky: I wouldn’t have found them in the Barnes & Noble, even if I had bothered to look. My parents were better about stuffing cash into their perpetual reading machine if they could be sure the books didn’t contain anything risque, and my own meager funds were reserved for Harry Potter. There was something of a split where the Bee Theres were concerned; I didn’t swap them with my sister, as we did with a lot of books, nor did I talk to my best friend about them. I’m not even sure that my friends at church ever read any of them. At the time, my pleasure in reading about Girls Like Me was tempered by the niggling sense that it was kind of uncool to enjoy Deseret Fiction so much.
Living in the mission field gives one a certain contempt for Utah Mormons. They made movies featuring young single adults wearing sleeveless dresses! They got to go to seminary at school! They had it easy. In There’s A Snake At Girls’ Camp, Marybeth’s love interest Sam (why was there even a boy at girls’ camp? It’s called “girls’ camp” for a reason!) wears a temporary tattoo of a snake in order to get over his fear of snakes. No good LDS parent would allow their kid to wear a temporary tattoo. When I was ten or so I donned a temporary tattoo of a little yellow lightning bolt at my cousin’s house–on my shoulder, where it would be covered by my shirt, because I knew, I knew it was wrong–and when I got home my mother spotted it, said WHAT IS THAT, and made me wash it off. She probably also had words with my aunt. The Mormon kids of the Bee Theres series were very clearly Utah Mormons–a little saccharine, a little lax–and there was an uncrossable cultural divide between those born in the Covenant and those baptized by nice young men in suits.
For one thing, doing a roadshow in Zion means you had a helluva lot bigger budget than if you put on a roadshow in Florida. Elena, the viewpoint character of Star of the Show, goes to actual practices. There are enough parts for half the ward, including tiny D-list parts like “Screaming Girl” (that was Elena). There are space pirates, for the sake of fuck. My roadshow experiences were strictly B-movie and doctrinal–a fifteen-minute pioneer saga here, a sketch about going on a mission there. The wildest we ever got was a notable olio act involving cow costumes, because the Eat Mor Chikin cows had just debuted as Chick-Fil-A’s poster animals.
And that was one of the great pleasures of the Bee Theres: glimpsing the sort of Mormon life I felt like I could have…if I were a little more righteous. If a cute boy ever moved into our ward or even our stake. If my church friends and I also went to the same school. The Bee Theres were so intimate with one another; they told each other their doubts and crushes and petty annoyances; they schemed together and had each other’s backs. At a remove from my friends at church (we all lived in different towns and went to different schools), and from my friends at school (no Coke at lunchtime! no R-rated movies at sleepovers! no study groups on Sunday! have fun in Outer Darkness), there was a refuge in this idealized Mormon girl world. Though I was chiefly a fantasy enthusiast from birth, I did love a few popular series of then-contemporary girl fiction, from The Baby-Sitters Club and The Saddle Club to the Fabulous Five titles and some series about a bunch of girls whose sole joy in life was sleepovers. But while charming and relatable, Mary Ann and Stevie and Taffy didn’t have that extra oomph of pathos that comes with finding a direct mirror for your culture in media. If nothing else, the existence of Marybeth, Carlie, and the rest woke me up to the significance of representation, even in niche fiction. And if my needs and desires for finding myself in a book have changed–should I relate so much to Richard Papen?–it’s nice to think that a version of me is preserved forever in the books of Lael Littke.
That version felt a kinship to those twelve-year-old girls whose LDS lives were much more dramatic than mine, yet still achingly familiar. Most of the other books I loved were fantasy, had little to do with my reality or were important to me in different ways; the Bee Theres’ turmoil and goals were the simple joy of the familiar, seeing oneself reflected in fiction. I never imagined myself interacting with them, as I did with Alanna the Lioness and the Animorphs, because I didn’t need to. I knew how I would respond to the chore of earning money for girls camp, because I sold Krispy Kreme doughnuts every year to raise that money (FUNdraising™). I knew how it felt to be afraid of giving a talk in sacrament meeting, because I dealt with that fear on the regular. I knew what it was like to be jealous of the Laurel class for their prettiness or opportunities to date or mysterious, worldly knowledge gleaned from the mere act of turning sixteen. Yet at the bottom of it, most of the concerns of the Bee Theres were externalized, their relatability based in culture rather than doctrine, a perennially murky topic for the Saints. And when I turned sixteen and no dates materialized, my own worries turned from Will he ask me out? to Why isn’t anyone suggesting that I ask him out?
As I grew older, my questions turned inward: was the Church true? was I praying enough, or hard enough? was I truly worthy to go to the temple if I fantasized about marrying Dave Grohl? No longer could I be sustained by the impish travails of finding the right bridesmaid dress color for five differently-complected girls or trying to set up the MIA Maid teacher with the widowed ward clerk. Ultimately the Bee Theres were a comfort food rather than lasting nourishment, a vision of model LDS girls only superficially similar to my experience. Milk for babes, meat for maturing babes: at some point you want the media you consume to have nutritional value. Consciously or subconsciously, I began to look for fiction that went deeper, and didn’t find it at Boyd’s Books. There were nonfiction titles aimed at strengthening the youth–John Bytheway’s ouvre–but these made me skittish. They were too real.
Reading them meant shining a light on the things I perceived to be wrong with me; other times they brought more questions, like why I still felt like shit if I was studying my scriptures, attending seminary, and magnifying my callings. If your parents caught you reading How To Be Totally Miserable they’d start asking questions or make you talk to the bishop, while fictional characters dealing with real-life scenarios served as a nice buffer. Kel facing down bullies in First Test provided something of a template for dealing with kids at school who liked to be nasty about my knee-length shorts, and suddenly a girl-knight-in-training had more in common with me than suburbanite teenagers who believed all the same things. As a bookworm to the core, without regular access to cable TV, I naturally hoped for thoughtful representation of aspects of myself in the books I read (though I wouldn’t have phrased it that way as a teen). It would’ve been nice if one of the Bee Theres had, say, argued with her stepfather about the difference between Communism and the law of consecration, or felt soul-guilty over accepting evolution as scientific fact. Things for current writers of contemporary Mormon YA to consider!
Recently I flipped through the two Bee Theres books I still have, Run, Ducky, Run and Star of the Show (where the others went is a question lost to time and multiple moves). Littke’s plotting and characterization are fine, nothing to write home about; there’s not quite a “31 flavors and more” selection of characters to relate to, but the girls are different enough to pick a fave. Teenage me related most to Marybeth, while adult me was most interested in Ducky. The snatches of dialogue and plot read almost as familiarly as my LiveJournal from those days. There is a wry brand of affection reserved for media–books, films–that were significant to you during an awkward phase in life. Perhaps in ten years I’ll be ready to look kindly on my sophomore-year obsession with The Scent of a Woman. For me, for my life lived in Things, the Bee Theres require compassion, for the girl I was and the woman I became after the roadshow ended.