I was pleased to discover a biography of Ellis Shipp published by Bookcraft. Many nineteenth-century Mormon women, like Dr. Shipp, played an important role in Utah history but have not been studied extensively. It was especially pleasing to see such a biography released by one of the largest publishers of Mormon materials.
Unfortunately, as I started reading, my enthusiasm vanished. This is not a first-rate biography but rather a composite of currently popular types in the Mormon market. First, it is simply, as the title suggests, an “inspiring story of Ellis Shipp.” It views Dr. Shipp in a vacuum, with no attempt to interpret her life in terms of her own experiences or the way she reacted to the world around her. Then, the flowery language, such as “so the youthful years passed for Ellis, colored by her own passion and poetry” (22), reads like some of the recent Mormon novels of love and romance. (I refer to them as Mormon harlequins because they have all the elements of a Harlequin Romance except that the love scenes are not as vivid.) The only difference between these novels and Not in Vain is that Dr. Shipp was a historical figure, not just a product of the author’s imagination. But like Keith and Ann Terry’s books on Emma Smith and Eliza R. Snow, this is merely a dramatization of a woman’s life, not a complete history. McCloud tells Dr. Shipp’s story by inventing dialogue so that the story reads like a novel and by guessing how Shipp and the other characters felt when she has no sources to support her sentimental interpretations. Finally, Not in Vain reads like an amateur family history where the main goal is to glorify the ancestor. McCloud includes long quotes from Shipp’s autobiography and journals as if she were afraid to leave out any word that flew from Dr. Shipp’s golden pen. In the concluding chapter, she quotes extensively from Shipp’s obituaries and funeral so that she will not miss any of Shipp’s good qualities. In fact, the book reads so much like a family history that I kept checking to see if McCloud were related.