Beyond the Mapped Stars: An Interview with Rosalyn Eves
Every summer I binge read a bunch of novels. And while I enjoy them in the moment, most of them fade from my mind faster than a sunburn turns to a tan. But two months after reading it, Beyond the Mapped Stars by Rosalyn Eves is still with me. Set in Monroe, Utah in the late 19th century, our heroine is seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Bertelsen who has a passion for astronomy, but no foreseeable way to pursue her dreams with the way her life has been mapped out for her. In fact it seems like the best she can hope for is to not become the second wife of a less than ideal older man. Thankfully, adventure ensues and the reader gets to watch as Elizabeth confront everything from bandits to self-doubt. There are no simple answers, which is part of what makes this novel so satisfying.
Lucky for me Rosalyn Eves was kind enough to answer some of my burning questions.
Q: What inspired this book?
A: Oddly enough, this is the second of my books that was inspired by listening to a program on NPR (Blood Rose Rebellion was the first). In 2017, I listened to David Baron talk about his book The American Eclipse, about all the scientists who came west for the 1878 eclipse, and I started thinking about what that eclipse might have looked like for people already living in the West. In particular, I started thinking about what life would have looked like for a young LDS girl who wanted to be an astronomer, something that required higher education but had little immediate practical application (unlike, say, becoming a doctor or artist).
Q: Polygamy is such a cringe inducing topic, most of us Mormons will go to great lengths to avoid it, especially with a non-LDS audience. What made you decide to include it, and not as a cautionary tale, but as a normal part of Elizabeth’s life?
Let me start by saying that I’m not a fan of polygamy and I don’t think I could have practiced it–but I’m also sensitive to the fact that many women genuinely believed they’d been called of God to practice it, and I don’t think it’s my place to disparage that faith. Also, polygamy is part of my own family history. My mom’s great grandfather married three Fielding sisters–I still remember visiting my great aunt one summer in Wyoming and hearing her claim that “grandpa always loved grandma best” (one of those three sisters). It struck me then that polygamy isn’t really that far in our past–I was talking with someone who remembered people who had practiced it. And in this case, it was part of Elizabeth’s life: her family is based loosely on my dad’s great-grandmother, whose father had plural wives. I wanted to show it as I think she might have seen it–a fairly ordinary, if challenging, part of family life.
Q: Elizabeth often struggles with her faith. In the afterword to the book you write that you also have struggles. What do you push against, and what do you embrace that makes you stay?
This is a hard question to answer, in part because it is such a personal thing, and something I struggled with as I wrote: how much do I include? But I sometimes get tired of books about religious characters that suggest that the only right character arc is for the character to leave a potentially hard faith for a more progressive one, so I wanted to avoid that. I know lots of good, moral people who stay (and many who leave–I’m not trying to argue for one right path), and I wanted to show some of the reasons someone might stay: personal belief, a sense of community, a connection to religious texts. For me, I stay for all of those reasons, although I struggle with the unequal role of women in the church and with the church’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues. (Fwiw, I do not believe we have yet received full revelations on gender and sexual identity). Mostly, I think it comes down to: where does God need me to be right now? And for now, it’s in the church.
I was also thinking about Jana Riess’s research in The Next Mormons, and how many Millennials and Gen Y members the church is losing–in part, I think, because we don’t talk openly enough about doubt and about these kinds of struggles. In writing a book for teens, I wanted to show that it’s okay to have questions and to make your faith your own. That’s part of why the dedication reads, “to the believing skeptics and the skeptical believers, there’s a place for us too.” I know that there are cases where church isn’t safe for some people, and that grieves me. But I believe in an expansive gospel that I hope can make space for all kinds of believers (though I think that we have to actively create those spaces).
Q: I love that you had Black characters figure so prominently in this book. How did you decide to include them and what liberties did you take?
My PhD dissertation looked at several women speakers and writers in the 19th century American West, and I knew from that research that the West was much more diverse than is often shown in movies and book depictions, and I wanted to show some of that diversity. I wanted to include a cameo to Jane Manning James, because I was moved by Quincy Newell’s biography, and her point that Jane and other Saints like her are an important, if often overlooked, part of our religious history. I was also surprised to learn, when I researched 19th century Denver, that there were several prominent Black families, and I wanted to show that, including Barney Ford, who owned the Inter-Ocean hotel. That kind of wealth afforded some privilege in society, and I based my family on that, although I think it’s likely that they would have faced a little more prejudice than my book showed, so that’s a liberty I took. (But I also feel strongly that as a white writer, it’s not my place to write about marginalized pain, so while I allude to that prejudice, I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it).
Q: Talk for a minute about race and how historically groups that we now think of as white, like Irish Italians and Mormons, were seen as racially different, because that seems so foreign to us now.
I read W. Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color when I was researching the book and was struck by the perception of Mormons as not-white. I had read before about Italians and Irish (significantly, Catholic majority ethnic groups) being seen as not-white in the 19th century, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that Mormons might be grouped this way as well, perhaps because we’ve done so well in the 20th century of assimilating to white ideals. According to Reeve, polygamy was a driving factor in this perception: since many LDS people were from northern and western European ancestry (including many founding members with ancestors on the Mayflower), many Americans could not account for the practice of polygamy (seen as a moral deprivation only practiced by other races) except by concluding that the practice somehow changed their racial and status. I don’t think Mormons were ever marginalized to the degree people of color have been, but I do vividly remember reading a mid-19th century book for my dissertation that claimed that the three biggest threats to American Democracy were “Mormons, Catholics, and Masons.” I do think that members were seen as Other because of their religious practices, and that’s something I tried to show.
Q: Polygamy, lesbians, interracial marriage, indigeneity. You take what seems like it will be a very vanilla cast of characters and mix in a colorful blend of people and situations. Sometimes I felt like Elizabeth should have been more scandalized by the situations she finds herself in. Like spending the night in Samuel’s room. Wouldn’t that have “compromised” her, or have I just read too much Jane Austen?
Like I mentioned above, it was important to me to show some of the existing diversity in the American West. I did try to base all my characters on plausible situations: one of the lesbian characters was, in real life, part of a “Boston marriage”–an arrangement where two single women pooled their resources and lived together, but many scholars think those relationships may have been romantic as well as financial. We also know that interracial marriages happened: the very fact that they were explicitly prohibited in most Western states suggests as much. It’s possible that Elizabeth should have been more shocked by some of the situations she found herself in, but I do think historical fiction, especially, always dances a fine line between accuracy and modern reader tastes: I wanted Elizabeth to be relatable to modern teens. As far as being “compromised”–I’d need to do a little more research to be sure, but my current understanding is that those rules were much more important for upper-class women (in both America and Europe) than for middle-class and poor women. (Although I am currently working on a book set in Regency-era England where one of the characters is compromised for much less!). Certainly Jo, in Little Women (published about 10 years before my book takes place) has a lot more freedom than most of Austen’s characters.
Q: How much did you learn about astronomy to write the book?
Not as much as you might think! I did research constellations and general astronomy facts, but mostly only for situations where I needed a specific detail. Mostly, I relied on a couple of physics professors that I know to help me with details.
Rosalyn Eves grew up in the Rocky Mountains, dividing her time between reading books and bossing her siblings into performing her dramatic scripts. As an adult, the telling and reading of stories is still one of her favorite things to do. When she’s not reading or writing, she enjoys spending time with her chemistry professor husband and three children, watching British period pieces, or hiking through the splendid landscape of southern Utah, where she lives. She dislikes housework on principle. You can learn more at www.rosalyneves.com