If Where You’re Going Isn’t Home – The Story
The three books of the trilogy If Where You’re Going Isn’t Home follow twelve-year-old Shake Tauffler and his dream to play jazz trumpet on his ten-year odyssey through what it is to grow up Mormon in America. Journey is the first book of the trilogy. It follows Shake for four years – from just before his twelfth birthday to just before his sixteenth. The second book, Of the World, takes him from there to the age of nineteen. The third book, Instrument, takes him the distance to twenty-two.
Journey begins in 1956 when Shake hears a line of music on the radio of a cattle truck and discovers his dream to play jazz trumpet. His family is moving one last time – from a southern Utah ranch to a town outside Salt Lake – on his father’s quest to bring his family from Switzerland to the homeland of the Mormon church. In two months, when he turns twelve, he’ll join his buddies on a shared journey through the ranks of his father’s take-no-prisoners religion. At the same time, armed with a used trumpet and his bike, he’ll start another journey, on his own, to a place whose high priests aren’t his father’s friends but the negro greats of jazz, men he’s supposed to believe are cursed but from whose music he learns everything he dreams of being.
Of the World dramatically raises the stakes on Journey. Shake and his buddies turn sixteen and enter their “car phase.” His band flexes its new-found ability to look for gigs in Salt Lake clubs and up and down the towns of northern Utah. The church tightens its harness on Shake and his buddies as they spread their wings, customize cars, discover girls, venture out into the Salt Lake underculture of State Street. His parents intensify their effort to stunt his growing moral and sexual consciousness. Anger and rebellion draw him into senseless fights with strangers. The racism rooted in church history and enshrined in Mormon doctrine is drawn into open confrontation with the world of jazz and its Negro giants. The army opens him to the world beyond the fenceline of his church and leads him to the love of a breathtaking girl before he turns nineteen and has to put his life on hold to meet his last obligation to his father.
Instrument begins in Austria at the threshold of his mission as an Instrument of the Lord. What waits for him there will do its best to destroy him.
Shaded with Huck Finn and James Dean, Shake is a kid I hope we all recognize, an American kid, a kid who responds to bigotry, abuse, hypocrisy, love, even death with courage, humor, heartbreak, often pain, and always wonder. His rites of passage are keenly drawn and vividly familiar and his dream to play jazz trumpet is that of most any musician. But his ten-year story of growing up Mormon in America takes us to an altogether different place. If Where You’re Going Isn’t Home spans a decade of his punishing but redemptive battle against family tyranny and religious oppression. Lyrical, rowdy, honest, his story is for those of us who long to hunker down and lose ourselves in a big American story, one whose narrative canvas takes us from Switzerland to a southern Utah ranch, to Salt Lake and its outskirts towns, into the secret holy places of the Mormon Church, across the landscapes of Nevada, California, Las Vegas, Kentucky, Austria, San Jose, the Mojave Desert, in his quest for the clarity and flight of a trumpet line.
If Where You’re Going Isn’t Home – Its Genesis
I’ve had people assume – not surprising because it’s what we expect writers to do – that this trilogy was something I decided to write to capitalize on Mitt Romney’s candidacy for the presidency, and piggyback on the national interest in Mormonism his run aroused. Others have wondered if “The Book of Mormon” – that Broadway musical by the South Park guys – had anything to do with my timing and inspiration.
The answer is No. On both counts. No.
Yes, Romney would have been about Shake’s age. Yes, Romney went through pretty much the same experience as a kid growing up Mormon as Shake does. They were contemporaries. They could have sat in the same classrooms, listening to the same wild doctrine, if Romney had been a less privileged kid and didn’t live out of Utah. They may even have been friends, although from what I know of Shake, I doubt this. As in seriously doubt.
But no. The Shake Tauffler Project has been around a whole lot longer than Romney the politician. No capitalizing. No piggybacking. No coat-tailing. Same for that Broadway musical. I’m inclined to think, in fact, that if anyone’s trying to piggyback, it’s them off Shake.
The genesis of what has evolved into this project is actually a love story I wrote way back in the summer of 1978. It was the story about the breakup of a young marriage – only six years old – between a couple in their twenties. Yes, by way of full disclosure, it was my marriage, and writing about its ending was one way for me to make sense of what had happened. The story haunted me for several years. What I came to recognize was that its setting – what it was like to grow up Mormon in America – had never been put on the map in a universal way that readers everywhere could understand and reach from the familiar territory of their own lives. Without that setting it was just another love-gone-stupid story. Without that setting nobody outside the culture in which it happened would get the true psychic and emotional heart of the story. To create that setting, I put the original story aside, and began where it had to begin – with a boy at the beginning of his duty to his father’s faith and his dream to play jazz trumpet.
His story – the three-book chronicle of his ten-year odyssey through everything his father and the Mormon church could stand in his way – has been in the making now for more than two decades. It is still a love story. A presidential race and a Broadway musical are purely coincidental.