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Death and Loss in La’ie

By: Amanda - December 19, 2013

A few years ago at a meeting of the Mormon History Association, Lisa Tait suggested that I read Susa Young Gates’ novel The Little Missionary. It was a barely fictionalized account of Susa’s experiences as a missionary wife in L?’ie, a small Mormon community in Hawai‘i focused on the production of sugar cane. Lisa felt that the novel would offer me insight into daily life on the plantation – the difficulty of eating Hawaiian food, the close relationships that developed between the men and women stationed there, and the gossip that sometimes circulated around the small community. It wasn’t until a few days ago, however, that I finally found the novel, which had been serialized in the Juvenile Instructor, and began to read.

Most of the novel is a light, cheerful exploration of the difficulties that white women as missionaries. Using a Mary Jane character, Susa describes the nausea that had greeted her on her way to the islands and the initial distrust of her children towards poi, mangos, and other Hawaiian foods. She also describes meeting the Hawaiian queen and watching Hawaiian Mormons pounding kapa cloth. Not all of the novel, however, has a jovial tone. While she was living in Hawai’i, two of her sons died of “diphtheritric croup.” In her diary, she described sitting by the bed of one of her sons, rubbing his bowels in an attempt to reveal his pain. Although her son begged her not to leave him, she knew that she had to get some rest and went to bed. Her son died later that night. She wrote that she had “hoped and believed” that the angel of death would spare her house, for she “didn’t dream people could die on missions.”

Although a decade passed before she wrote The Little Missionary, the tone that she adopts in the novel is an anguished one. The pain still seems fresh and it is difficult to read. Susa begins the section by describing her own lapse in judgment. In the novel, Susa’s stand-in promises to follow the Word of Wisdom and not to eat meat in Hawai’i since it is the land of eternal summer.[1] One day, however, she failed to keep her promise and decided to eat a steak. Susa describes the meat cooking in “the hot pan, turned often and then put on a hot platter with butter spread upon it.” The young mother doesn’t realize, however, the pain that the animal had suffered. One of the woman’s neighbors hears “a most terrible and really blood-curdling bawling” and sent her daughter to discover what it was. The young girl would never forget “the sight.” The cow that the men had decided to butcher “had been very ferocious and wild.” As a result, “the butchering was too hastily done” and “life was actually lingering in the animal, as they began the skinning of it.” The animal “bellow[ed] with anger and pain.” Susa says that the young mother noticed that the “meat was especially red and bloody when she got it” but “it was a silly yielding to her animal tastes.” The woman served the meat to her two small boys who “ate of it ravenously.” The woman blamed her decision to feed that meat to them for their deaths.

The rest of the novel is haunted by the boys’ illness and death. Susa describes the young mother going from house to house in La’ie, refused the peaches for which her eldest son was crying because she had never shared her own fruit with the other missionaries. During the last moments of the eldest child’s life, the woman softly sang the story of Joseph Smith’s prayer into the child’s ear. Susa then describes the woman’s anguish when she realizes that her second child would also be taken from her. Throughout the story, the woman continues to blame her decision to break the Word of Wisdom for her sons’ deaths. She believes that it was only by following that doctrine that she could have kept “death and sickness” from her house. In breaking that commandment, she sentenced her children to death. Susa eventually relieves the woman from her guilt – sharing a dream from another missionary that God had required her two sons and that they had died from no fault of her own.

Reading the story, however, was still agonizing. When I first heard it during Lisa’s presentation at MHA, I was a young woman without children. I remembered feeling sad but the story made no lasting impression upon me. When I read it this time, however, I was horrified. I recently gave birth to my first child and cannot imagine watching as one of my children died. Like most mothers, I have tried to make the best decisions for my daughter but not all of them have been sanctioned by the American Academy of Pediatricians. Out of sheer exhaustion, I have brought her into my bed. In hopes of relieving her teething pain, I have used teething tablets. I also occasionally let her watch ten or fifteen minutes of television. Although I know each of these decisions are not what my pediatrician would recommend, I do them because they seem like the right decision at the moment. I have no idea what I do if my daughter died from accidental suffocation or if the teething tablets that I gave turned out to be contaminated and led to her death. Reading the story left me with a vision of Susa that was more human than I had had previously. Although I had read about Susa’s insecurities, her fear of cats, and her deep friendship with Joseph F. Smith, reading about her children’s death made her feel more real. Susa, the woman who had been friends with Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Susan B. Anthony, who had written and published several novels, and who had been popular newspaper columnist, became a woman who had known deep pain and who struggled to forgive herself for it.



[1] The Word of Wisdom can be interpreted to forbid eating meat except in times of winter or famine.



4 Comments

  1. Sobering thoughts. Thanks for the reminder that fiction can, and often should, be used as a source. Some things are easier to tell if a person can pretend it’s someone else’s story; the emotions are true even if the events aren’t.

    Comment by J Stuart — December 19, 2013 @ 8:49 am

  2. Nice reading, Amanda. I had forgotten the bit about the cow. It was this experience, more than any other, that forged the friendship between Susa and Jacob and Joseph F. and Julina, and I think his dream really was a comfort to her. But yes, the pain is so fresh and poignant, you can’t look at Susa the same way after reading this story. And then to think that she lost _eight_ of her children. In fact, within a year of the publication of this story, she had lost her little daughter, about seven years old, when she was accidentally shot by one of her brothers! Her oldest son had been killed in an explosion five years earlier. Her baby would die of poisoning the next year. So much sorrow and suffering in her life. I think she tried not to dwell on it, but it was always there, a shadow, perhaps even the driving force behind her indomitable energy. If she had let herself sit down and cry, she probably would not have been able to stop.

    Comment by LisaT — December 19, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

  3. Oh my. That is a lot of pain for one woman to bear.

    Comment by Saskia — December 19, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

  4. Joey, what’s interesting about the Little Missionary is that the events seem to be true as well. LisaT has told me that she has spent some time tracking down specific events and can often find a source for an event in the novel in someone’s diary. It’s tough to know exactly how to treat the novel for that reason.

    Lisa, that’s a really interesting reading. I’m always wowed by Susa, especially when you add in her tumultuous first marriage. She was wealthy in many ways but in others, she was quite the survivor.

    Comment by Amanda — December 19, 2013 @ 3:03 pm