Jonathan Reeves is an LDS golden boy growing up in a small town in California. Athletic, cocksure, and indifferent towards his schoolwork, he goes to the tutoring center only under threat of being cut from the track team. His tutor turns out to be Nancy Von Kleinsmid, a tall, brilliant, friendless girl, who badgers him, spurs him, challenges his every belief and intuition, and encourages his writing. Despite the fact that Nancy is not LDS, Jon falls in love and determines to marry her and pursue a literary career. He cannot understand why she slips away from him. Within a year of his leaving for college, she is found dead at a local swimming spot, an apparent suicide.
Jon serves a mission in Mexico. His mother dies during his absence, and his relationship with his father deteriorates after Jon returns home. While the narrative has been linear to this point, Jon’s adult life emerges through a jumble of flashbacks as he tries to make peace with his past. He has married and postponed his dream of becoming a writer. He is struggling with a daughter’s crippling illness and the pressures of teaching remedial English in a California school. As in all too much serious LDS fiction, Jon carries around near-debilitating remorse for petty sins, carelessness, and things beyond his control. Such attitudes surely exist among the LDS people but have never struck me as typical.
The book is about loss, deferred dreams, and appeasing old ghosts. But Fillerup’s story leaves room for the Spirit. Jon receives almost audible, at times physical, impulses that encourage him and keep him from making mistakes. One crucial time he fails to listen. In his previous fiction, Fillerup has tended to undermine such passages with sociological observations or competing spiritualities. That tendency is mostly absent here. In Beyond the River, religious experience comes almost as a matter of course, an aspect, among others, of Mormon life. Few literary novels attempt such straightforward depictions of LDS spirituality, though that is at the heart of what Mormon literature ought to do. Beyond the River is a passionate book and a readable one. On the spiritual count alone, it is an important contribution to LDS letters.