Maria and Lola were in my Canadian History 101 course at Selkirk College. They arrived each morning in a sleek Buick sedan and left right after classes in the afternoon to make the long drive back home to their fundamentalist Mormon community of Bountiful. They both wore their hair in the sect's traditional bobbypinned curlycue at each temple, with braids to their waists. Lola wore Little House on the Prairie dresses that looked as if they were made of busily patterned bedsheets - I knew you couldn't buy dress material like that. Maria dressed more modern; she wore plain skirts and collared shirts with a sweater or vest overtop. Both girls were about my age, about eighteen, and both were married already - to men that had multiple wives, but that was nothing unusual in the polygamous community of Bountiful.
Lola barely spoke and always looked ahead, but Maria was more approachable and seemed to me, quite clever with a glimmer of wit in her eyes. She sometimes sat in the upper area of the spacious glass and concrete common room of the college doing homework, and once I got the courage up to speak to her. (I have always been interested in hearing peoples stories. I'm not particularly nosy, but if I think someone might be receptive to questions about themselves, I tend to 'fire away'.) I sat down on the couch opposite Maria and asked her where she lived, even though I already knew the answer. She told me she and Lola were training to be teachers for their community school. Somehow we got on the topic of marriage and she said yes, she was married. I felt comfortable asking her by this point if her husband had more than one wife, and how did she feel about that. She said, oh, it was fine, he was a young man and had only two other wives. I knew that some of the elders of the sect, like leader Winston Blackmore had a lot more wives than that, and some of them even younger than Maria - as young as fifteen. We chatted about other things, about our classes, about the daily three hour round trip to and from the college, and then that was it. I don't think we talked much after that, but we did exchange greetings in our class and in the common room.
Since meeting Lola and Maria, I have maintained an interest in the community of Bountiful. The idea of it has always been reprehensible to me, for I know that all those young girls who are married off as babymakers and 'sister wives' to the men are individuals with dreams and desires of their own. I have also been keenly sympathetic toward the young men who are 'conscripted' out of school far too early to work for the elders' businesses. In recent years, Bountiful has come under scrutiny. The government is trying to find a way to dismantle their polygamous lifestyle, not so much for the idea of multiple wives, but more for the common practise of coersion of very young women to marry men old enough to be their grandfathers.
The communities of Bountiful, and other sister communities south of the border have, to my mind, been dealing with a slow implosion. There have long been two main 'prophets' of the fundamentalist Mormon Sect, and now they are at odds. The communities are becoming divided in their loyalties and young people are questioning the entire system. This I only know from watching documentaries on tv and reading articles in newspapers and magazines over the last couple of years. Jane Blackmore, one of Winston's highly ranked wives, has left the community completely and now works as a midwife in the nearby town of Creston. She and other ex-members of the sect help young people, especially young women to leave the community and start life in what must be an alien social landscape. They also talk to the media, which I am certain is contributing to what I predict to be the eventual downfall of Bountiful.
When I think about Bountiful, I think of Maria and Lola*. I wonder what they are doing now. I wonder if they completed their teacher training. I wonder if they have children. I wonder if they still live in Bountiful. Most of all, like many of the other students I have lost contact with over the years, I wonder if they are happy.
The above photo is from the Vancouver Sun newspaper.
*I changed their names