by Theric Jepson:
Excerpt from But Very Little Meat, the new historical novel based on the lives of vegan Latter-day Saint pioneers Stephen and Stella Stoop.
Stella's lungs felt strong as she breathed the crisp late fall air of what would someday be the outskirts of Charles, Nebraska. She admired Stephen's strong backside as he pulled the wagon in yoke with the oxen. Respect for all animal life as created by the Lord had given him a backside worthy of admiration, a compliment he often returned to Stella. She blushed, remembering their recent healthy, marital encounters.
The pink glow in her cheeks must have been flowerlike, for what was surely the last butterfly of the season alighted upon her cheek. Stella froze and held her breath, unwilling to disturb so holy a creature as it enjoyed its last hours of mortality. Surely the Lord is great, thought Stella.
A sudden crack tore through the air and Stella's heart. The butterfly fled the sounds of carnage. Stella pulled a head off a shaft of prairie grass and nervously tried to separate a grain. Realizing her nerves were a sign of the Holy Spirit's disappointment with her, she tucked the sustenance into her apron pocket and rushed to the sound's origin. Stephen and the oxen, Balaam and His Lesson, arrived simultaneously.
Godfrey Child looked at her sheepishly and said, "M'family's gotta eat, Missus Stoop…"
"Sister Stoop, please," she responded with kindness. "But what of that deer's family?"
"Ah shucks, Sistah Stoop. Deer ain't got no families this time a' the year." He kicked the dirt with his shoe.
Stella recalled, not for the first time, that the Word of Wisdom revealed by the Good Lord Almighty to Brother Joseph had been adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, and then she considered again how to teach this true principle without exercising any appearance of unrighteous dominion. "Well, Godfrey Child," she said, inspiration striking, "as you go forth in life, remember your name. For you are a child of Gods and free to choose for yourself. And remember that which was free to choose but now, alack, is dead."
It was a lesson he would share with his wife and, later, repeat to his children and their children, several of whom would follow in Stella Stoop's pioneering footsteps and renounce the eating of the flesh of animals as an unholy practice, leading them to new insights into the famed vision of Peter, Christ’s first apostle.
As the Childs sheepishly ate their meal of deer muscle and organs--sharing both its bounty and subsequent regret with the with camp save, of course, the Stoops who spent their evening discovering new roots rich with nutrition and plentiful upon the wide prairie plains, a strikingly frigid wind was sweeping toward the pioneers from the temple-like mountains ahead. Little did these human carnivores realize, the vague explorations of the Stoops would soon be the only passage through death and to life on the other side.
The snow crashed down not as an unwelcome blanket, but as a violent blow from a drunken assailant. In one fell whitening, the flames were extinguished and the frightened Saints were fleeing to their off-brand, budget Conestogas, grasping at sweaters, the filaments of deer yet between their teeth forgotten as they struggled to put on second and third pairs of holey socks. As the Stoops returned to camp carrying their barrel of freshly harvested root, the ice freezing to his lapels and to her bonnet, they were surprised to see disordered panic among their fellow-travelers. "Hark!" they cried. "Your bodies require voluminous and efficient fuel to ward off the dangers of cold. We bring such fuel!" But their words could not penetrate the demon winds to reach the afeared ears of their compatriots.
Stella looked to Stephen as if to say, you care for the oxen--just let me fill mine apron with roots to carry to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Besides, perhaps through this hardship they will find a renewed appreciation for the wealth available in the neglected gifts to be found in the larder of God.
Stephen nodded in understanding and watched Stella fill her apron before leaving to care for their hard-working animal companions. Stella watched him go then detached a crispy strand of hair from her eyebrow and rushed to the first wagon. Giving first a generous root to each animal, she then poked her head into their wagon and explained that whole thing about voluminous and efficient fuel. The family could hardly express their usual skepticism through chattering teeth, and instead each placed a root between said teeth. Within moments, a sense of warmth spread down their throats and through their veins. They looked to thank Stella but lo, she was gone. Off to serve another needy family with the gifts left in the mother earth itself by the purest and selflessest portion of God's creation, the grasses (and trees and ferns and so forth).
Though many adventures and trials remained for their company upon the trails, as we shall see, this night would stand out as one in which a marginalized vegan woman served as the Lord's angel to his people in need. And although none would embrace the full vegan lifestyle of the Stoops in this life, they would all always remember this moment of grace shared with their wagon-train family, huddled in virgin show upon the windswept prairie, feasting upon the roots of plants, needing not even meat in their time of winter.
The exact location of these events may have been as many as one hundred miles from where Charles was located. At any rate, the beginnings of that township were mere months prior to the "Miracle of the Roots" and so even if the wagon train had been a short ride by horse, the company may not have been aware of the fact (see HCC, pp. 95, 99-101).
That Godfrey Child was the killer of the deer is shown demonstrably in the diary of his brother-in-law who was in the same company. Jimfred Toppley was married to Godfrey's wife's sister and was so moved by the events of the evening that his recountings of the "Miracle of the Roots" in early Utah lyceums largely settled the series of events in tradition, though current research suggests that Toppley himself initially refused to eat the "damned dangerous diggings … [of] them Stoops" (MWM, pp. 196; see also PPLT, pp. 95-143; vulgarity in original). Given his later plural marriage to Sister Stoop's vegan sister, he appears not to have held those views for many years.
The actual root partaken of by members of the community remains a matter of some debate among Latter-day Saint botonists, which debate has been the result of multiple acrimonious dismissals from Brigham Young University's Department of Edible and Inspiring Botony over the years, though the recent release from the Church's public relations department would seem to allow for a new liberality in interpretation.
The “vague explorations” spoken of would later be compared by Annabel Stoop, the youngest child of the family in an interview (published in the June 1921 issue of Improvement Era shortly before her passing) to the wanderings of Nephi who "was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which [he] should do" (1 Nephi 4:6). She also justified the frequent use by her mother of the mildly pagan phrase "mother earth" by referencing the vision of Enoch in which the earth referred to herself as "the mother of men" (Moses 7:48).
Also check out Theric Jepson's latest novel PENny.
Theric Jepson writes about Mormon literature at A Motley Vision and other stuff at Thutopia. He co-edited Monsters & Mormons, recently finished his debut novel Byuck and can be blamed for other acts of wickedness as well. He lives in El Cerrito, California, with his wife.
Image credit: Theric Jepson (used with permission).