Sunday, May 05, 2013

L. Tom Perry: An Uncommon Life by Lee Tom Perry

What do you think a biography should do?  I'm asking because your answer to that question will determine whether I recommend this book to you. 

If you want it to make a contribution to the larger field of Mormon Studies and broaden your understanding of the church in the given time period, this is not the book for you.  (You should read the recent biographies of President McKay or President Kimball instead.)  This book is very much a personal story and not an effort to comment on the larger sweep of church history using Elder Perry's story as a vehicle.  It's more of a homey collection of reflections on his life than a Serious Work of History.  But there are some good glimpses of history here anyway, from the role his mother took on as a de facto ward clerk to the logistics of local funding for buildings to a seven-year-old future-Elder Perry having to wake up the prophet and tell him he was late to a meeting (!). 

But if you just want your biography to give you a greater appreciation for the subject, then you should probably read this.  I would not say that Elder Perry is one of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve who gets the lion's share of attention or gives the talks that everyone else talks about [1], so this book was a nice exploration of his life and style.  As Peggy Fletcher Stack has noted, Elder Perry might be "the least well-known" member of the Quorum, despite being the oldest. (Citation) Like many of the people whose lives spanned most of the 20th century, Elder Perry has a story to tell:  depression, war (he was part of the rebuilding effort in Japan and with the first groups of US troops to arrive in Japan), baby boom, business man.  Note that this biography will appear in two volumes and this one goes through 1976, which is shortly after his call to the Quorum of the Twelve.  His son decided to split the volumes at that date, a significant turning point in Elder Perry's life since his first wife had died (only a matter of months after his calling to the Twelve); the next volume will begin with his marriage to his second wife.  (That is probably a logical division and only creeped me out because of my distaste for what amounts to polygamy.  But I digress.)

Obviously, a biography written by the subject's namesake son is going to be a very different book than one written by anyone else.  What Lee Tom Perry lacks in objectivity he makes up for in affection for his topic.  (He also uses footnotes to good effect--many of them are fun little asides that only a child could get away with:  after a record where the future Elder Perry noted without comment that he had eaten three pieces of cake in one day:  "Two thoughts come to mind from my father's description of his typical day that pertain to him as much now as they did back in 1951.  First, he likes a routine, and second, he is very fond of desserts.")  The book also has the feel of a family history, which may at times be a little cloying to some readers.  I liked some of the ancestral stories of Elder Perry's dad's misadventures, but I have to admit that they are not entirely germane to Elder Perry's life.  I liked the story of L. Tom Perry as a missionary, practicing a discussion on faith to a mouse, late at night in the kitchen of his missionary apartment and, upon finding the mouse drowned in the sink the next morning, deciding that the mouse had obviously intended to be baptized.  It is hard to know to what extent, if any, the author succumbed to the natural desire to present the most publicly acceptable version of his father's story or whether he let the cards fall where they would.  The Elder Perry in this book isn't perfect:  he becomes a Marine instead of joining the Navy, despite a prior commitment to a friend, because he doesn't like the uniforms (and he was not entirely truthful with his mother about his reasoning, either).  He thinks of the people around him as "Japs" until his interactions with the Japanese soften his heart and he is able to see their humanity.  And there's a great story about Elder Perry sitting on the floor while he was sustained as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve:  he was there because the person sitting next to him on an over-crowded bench was so excited when he heard Elder Perry's name read that he accidentally pushed him right off the edge.  

If you need your socks knocked off, this isn't the book for you.  But if you want a nice, quiet life story, you'll probably like this.  

[1] You might think I am a terrible person for saying this, and I grant that that is a possibility.  But it is worth noting that when Elder Perry was called as an Assistant to the Twelve, his son blurted out, "Do you know what this means?  You're going to be giving talks all the time, and you've never been very good at that sort of thing."  That statement has the following footnote:  "That might not be the stupidest thing I've ever said, but it's certainly high on the list."

Cross-posted from Times & Seasons.

No comments:

Blog Archive