When I read Keturah and Lord Death, I hoped to meet Martine Leavitt one day—not because the book was named by Publishers Weekly as one of the best 100 books of the year, or because Booklist awarded it a top-ten spot among both fantasy and women’s history books for youth, or because it’s a National Book Award nominee. I wanted to meet the person who could quote prophets in a fantasy and teach universal truths without being preachy. I love this fantasy because it is heart-achingly true.
Last week I met the person who brought these truths to life through Keturah as I studied in Martine’s BYU workshop. More about that next post. Today I want to talk about the book. (Warning: Contains poorly veiled spoiler alerts. Come back after you’ve read the book and tell me what you think!)
Keturah and Lord Death begins as Keturah ventures into the forest and becomes lost. “After three days of wandering, I reconciled myself to God and sat under a tree waiting for death,” Keturah says. But as she tells Lord Death a story, leaving off the ending for the next day if Lord Death will come for her then instead, it’s clear that Keturah is no more reconciled to death than she was three days before. She wants to live and find a “love that could not be ended by death.” If Keturah can find such a love in only a day, Lord Death promises to let her live.
Keturah tries to make Ben Marshall her true love. To win his heart, she must win the title of Best Cook at the fair, and to make a winning recipe she must have a lemon, and to earn such a rare ingredient, she must slave in Lord Temsland’s kitchen. It’s easy for the reader to forget that Keturah’s life hangs in the balance as Keturah flits from task to task. Ilene Cooper of Booklist noted, “The plotting moves in and out of the everyday and the supernatural, but it’s so finely tuned that the worlds seem one.” Such plotting illuminates the true rhythm of life, entwining mundane tasks with the spiritual.
Unlike fantasy novels depicting a great conflict between a good protagonist and an evil villain, this book mentions only the evil within the self. Lord Death says hell is not a place but the requirement for man to see “the landscape of his own soul.” There is no bloody battle symbolizing the soul’s inner battle; instead, the struggle within Keturah’s soul is the heart of the novel’s conflict. She wavers between seeing Lord Death as the villain who threatens to prevent her dreams from being realized and recognizing that it is Lord Death who “made her love the breath in her lungs. She knew she had never been truly alive until she met him, and never so happy and content with her lot until she was touched by the sorrow of him.”
Lord Death serves as a God figure, an immortal being who is both powerful and merciful; bound by justice, yet willing to reason with man; loving and even possessing a mild sense of humor. Keturah’s speaking with such a being face-to-face echoes the Mormon scriptural narrative in which Moses, the brother of Jared, Joseph Smith, and others ask and receive direct answers from God. In one instance, Keturah demands to know why so many innocents must die from the plague, and Lord Death’s wisdom echoes a latter-day prophet’s teachings:
If untimely death came only to those who deserved that fate, Keturah, where would choice be? No one would do good for its own sake, but only to avoid an early demise. No one would speak out against evil because of his own courageous soul, but only to live another day. The right to choose is man’s great gift, but one thing is not his to choose—the time and means of his death.
Mormon prophet Spencer W. Kimball once taught:
If pain and sorrow and total punishment immediately followed the doing of evil, no soul would repeat a misdeed. If joy and peace and rewards were instantaneously given the doer of good, there could be no evil. . . There would be no test of strength, no development of character, no growth of powers, no free agency.
Keturah fights against the idea that her life is not wholly her own by lengthening the story she tells Lord Death, bargaining repeatedly for another day. Though Keturah’s outward struggles are to find her love and preserve her life, her inward struggle is reflected in the words of the local church choirmaster’s description of his mother: “All her life she’d sought strength against the day when [death] must come.” But “there is no strength on that day. Submission is all there is.”
Throughout the book Keturah stays busy seeking her true love and trying to prevent the plague while holding the bitter idea of submission at bay. Even as Lord Death extends her life, Keturah feels uneasy: “It made me not glad. Somehow I felt myself even more bound to him by it.”
Lord Death being both the antagonist to Keturah’s dearly held goals and the supplier of Keturah’s every breath illuminates a universal dilemma. Keturah’s battle between willfulness and submission, between seeing Lord Death as “the bearer of pain and tears and heartache” and the source of “health and marrow and wholesomeness” is one believers must confront in their own attitudes toward Deity.
Throughout the course of the novel, Keturah begins admitting her powerlessness: “Next to him, I felt the grossness of my own body, how more I was like the earth than I was like him. He was air and wind and cloud and bird; I was dust and worm.”
Martine’s descriptions of Keturah’s journey from fear to reconciliation are eloquent. Keturah journeys from believing she is reconciled to God to truly being reconciled. She faces “the landscape of [her] own soul” and discovers the depth of sacrifice required—willing submission rather than resignation.
Mormon readers may find their own understanding of God reflected in Keturah’s evolving experiences with Lord Death:
His voice is cold at first. It seems unfeeling. But if you listen without fear, you find that when he speaks, the most ordinary words become poetry. When he stands close to you, your life becomes a song. . . . When he touches you, your smallest talents become gold; the most ordinary loves break your heart with their beauty.
Similarly, Mormon prophet Ezra Taft Benson taught:
Yes, men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace.
By the novel’s end, Keturah has overcome her fear of death. When Lord Death comes near, she says, “I could feel no heat from him, hear no breath in his lungs. He was utterly still beside me,” and “oh, the peace in that stillness.”
Keturah perfectly describes the Mormon idea of divine discontent the closer she becomes to Lord Death:
What was real was the sense that in this life I had never quite been satisfied, had never long been at peace, had never loved or been fully loved as I longed to be. I could not name what was in me then, but I knew that the cure was not anywhere around me.
Keturah begins to see that her mortal life is “a lovely gown I had tried on for a time, a gown whose color I could not now recall. It was a delicious meal that had not filled me.”
Keturah and Lord Death, both beautiful and bittersweet, captures poignant truths while telling a surprising love story.
I feel blessed to have spent a whole week soaking in Martine Leavitt’s brilliance, though I’m sure I’ll never quite reflect it in my own writing. What I can do is share some gems from her classes next post.