Book review of Rosalyn Eves’ Beyond the Mapped Stars
Beyond the Mapped Stars by Rosalyn Eves (Knopf, August 2021) is a powerful coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old Mormon girl, Elizabeth, who wants to become an astronomer despite her self-doubt and the traditional expectations of her beloved family and community. The plot revolves around the 1878 eclipse.
Big publishers seldom take on work that centers Mormon protagonists, siloing and minimizing our stories as too “regional” or “niche.” But Eves is cracking that ceiling. Perhaps this is best narrated in the opening scene where we see Elizabeth, a bookworm, analyzing some of her favorite adventure novels about the West while noticing the characters “don’t at all resemble the westerners I know.” She says the “worst of all are the Mormons, who are invariably dastardly or foolish dupes.” Elizabeth likes to share the “best” passages with her sister “to laugh about how wrong these Eastern writers get us.”
From there, Eves brings to life a historical world with nuance. For example, Elizabeth comes from a polygamous family drawn with dimension. We learn that the first wife was like a sister to Elizabeth’s mother, though her mother struggles with the third wife. Faith is no monolith, with Elizabeth’s family featuring an inactive father and devout mother. As Elizabeth herself observes, “There’s not much thoughtful challenging of doctrine at home — Papa tends to dismiss things outright, and Mama treats everything said at church as God’s own truth — but I like…the idea that you can have different interpretations and still find meaning inside your faith.”
Within this world, Eves animates other aspects of this community that will feel familiar: blessing of faith by women for a sick child, sisters from a ward rallying to bless a woman in labor, and a few references to Heavenly Mother. “I believe in God-the-Father and God-the-Mother,” Elizabeth thinks, and “they are not so small and so fragile that my questions can break them.”
As Elizabeth visits her half-sister and travels by train, having various unexpected adventures alongside a complicated romance with a hometown boy who voices support for her dreams, the book raises several compelling tensions, one being the wrestle between community belonging and learning to show up for life as one’s full, authentic self. As Elizabeth discovers, “I have been afraid, because I have been small, because I thought myself trapped by the expectations of others when it has really been my own fears that have trapped me.” At one point, Elizabeth gets called out for telling “reassuring half-lies” and “telling everyone what they want to hear,” “softening” herself to make others more comfortable who feel unsettled by her Mormonism. She worries she has to choose: “I feel as though I stand at a crossroads, with one road leading to home and family and faith, the other to science and learning and adventure.” Even though her life path does not look like that of any other woman that she knows, she considers the power of harnessing more “and” and less “or” in her identity to dream bigger. This, she realizes, is something no one else can do for her.
A unifying message of this book is the importance of challenging assumptions. Elizabeth confronts this most when she befriends BIPOC characters, queer characters, and meets real historical figures such as Jane Manning James, Thomas Edison, and early astronomer Maria Mitchell. Many of these well-developed characters also “know what it’s like, to hide something of who you are from the world’s judgment.” Eves’ vast experience with historical research makes these moments feel palpable while also raising other universal questions Elizabeth asks herself, such as:
“Why do I always seem to want more than I can have?”
“Who am I, outside my family, my faith?”
“What is it that God wants for me? What do I want?”
By engaging with this book, we can rally and say we want more stories like this, universal, complex narratives that challenge the problematic boundary between “literature” and “Mormon literature.” ⋑