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Archive for the ‘Elna Baker’ Category

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker was not a book I had ever heard of before I saw it sitting on the shelf at my local library branch.  But there were too many buzz words in the title for me not to pick it up – New York?  Mormon?  Singles?  When would I ever turn any of these things down, never mind in combination?  One of the sad truths about being a twenty something single gal is that I am a pathetically captive audience for memoirs written by other twenty something single gals (and, in case you’ve missed this publishing trend, there are lots).  But those books are usually full of booze, self-loathing, and desperate one night stands – when did this trio become so central to young, female identity?  Baker, a practicing Mormon, former Big Girl (she lost eighty pounds in her early twenties after moving to New York), and comedian, has a slightly different and certainly more interesting story to tell.

Even though I’d never heard of the book before, I thought I knew what I was getting going in but I was wrong in the most pleasant way.  Elna’s struggle with the constraints placed on her and her relationships by her faith are a large part of the book but never all-consuming; there’s still plenty of time to focus on her weight loss, her varied career path, and her intriguing family.  Oh my goodness, her family.  I am enthralled by them, perhaps because I had the foolishly prejudiced idea that all Mormons lived in Utah (though none of the Mormons I’ve met have actually been from there), are blond and pale (certainly not Mexican, even though I know how much missionary work the LDS church does in Latin America), and live lives generally cloistered from the secular world.  But this is why we read, isn’t it?  To wipe away preconceptions and educate ourselves?  Elna’s jet-setting family (“My father is currently the CEO of a titanium factory near the Ural Mountains.  Which makes him sound like an evil villain.  While they’re isolated in the freezing cold, I think it’s the perfect addition to my bit: I’m a Mexican Mormon with a home in Siberia now.”) is loud and eccentric enough for me to put to rest forever my image of Mormon youths as Stepford-esque obedient daughters in flowered dresses and car salesmen sons with neatly parted hair and pressed chinos.  Yes, there still seem to be a lot of those around but at least now I know that there is some variety on offer. 

It was this opening exchange between Elna and her mother that made me certain I was going to enjoy the book:

‘Elna,’ she said nervously. ‘The first thing that will happen when you move to New York is, you might start to swear.’

I wanted to say, ‘Oh shit, really?’ But I knew that only my dad would think that was funny.  Instead I nodded my head and said ‘Mmm hmm.’

‘And Elna,’ she continued, ‘swearing will lead to drinking.’

I had somehow missed the connection.

‘And drinking will lead to doing drugs.’

The conversation was starting to get more amusing that even I had anticipated.  ‘And Elna,’ she said, pursing her lips and looking directly into my eyes, ‘what would you do if a lesbian tried to make out with you?’

I didn’t think double takes existed outside of Three’s Company until that moment.  I was used to her saying words like chuch calling, relief society, and bishopric meeting.  Not the word lesbian, let alone lesbian and make out in the same sentence.  It was awesome.  But I was also slightly offended.  If you followed my mother’s logic each step was a progression toward becoming more of a sinner.  First I’d swear, then I’d drink, then I’d do drugs.  By that point I was getting used to the narrative, so I assumed sex with men would be next.  But no – my mother skipped that altogether and jumped to my becoming a lesbian.  Did my mother honestly think that I had a better chance of getting action from a woman than a man? (p. 4-5)

Amusing, thoughtful, and honest, Elna’s story is easy to read and I came out of it both liking and respecting her – an outcome I’m not all that used to when it comes to the coming-of-age memoir.  If I’m honest, I was always going to love her after finding out that she’d been overweight for most of her life, beginning her time in New York at the same size I am now.  The changes brought about by significant weight loss are scary – in Elna’s case, taking her from a generally ignored Big Girl to a suddenly sexy and desirable woman who has no idea how to employ her new siren powers – and reading about people on the ‘other side’ as it were is always fascinating, especially when they share thoughts like this:

If you’ve lost a ton of weight, then you know what I’m talking about.  I felt unsettled.  Like I’d gone to Paris and forgotten to turn off my stove.  Whatever it was, I’d left something important, something I could not quite place, behind. (p. 97)

I love memoirs about twenty-something single females, people contemplating their (preferably obscure, and Mormons count as obscure) faith, and people who have gone through significant weight loss journeys.  This book is all of those things, combined into one slim, highly amusing volume.  It had me laughing and sympathizing with Elna from the first page and kept me solidly entertained until the very end.

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