It’s been awhile since I got down to less than 80 pages in a book and felt sad that it was coming to an end! This is how I felt as I finished Heidi S. Swinton’s, “To the Rescue”, the official biography of Thomas S. Monson, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As a young person I noticed that President Monson often sprinkled stories of hospital and nursing home visits in his talks. I also noticed his meeting with leaders of other faiths, his friendship with the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake and his involvement in Scouting. For the young or new member of the LDS Church, or the person who is not a Mormon but wants to learn more about this dynamic leader, “To the Rescue” brings the reader up to speed on these unique aspects of President Monson’s ministry, which spans half a century. It also provides an insightful account of President Monson’s central role in the LDS Church’s establishment in East Germany before the razing of the Berlin Wall. The book also mirrors President Monson’s unique teaching style by stringing together anecdotes from President Monson’s repertoire that by themselves constitute inspiring sermons.
Examples of such “sermons” include one of President Monson’s boyhood Thanksgivings when a neighbor boy, Charlie, leaned at the fence and asked Tommy (as President Monson was known then) about the wonderful smell coming from the Monson home. After a short conversation between the boys, Tommy Monson came to realize that not only had Charlie never tasted Turkey, but didn’t even know what chicken tasted like. Tommy soon realized that the cupboards at Charlie’s house were bare. On his own initiative, the young Tommy Monson gave the neighbor his two “prized” New Zealand White Rabbits to have for a Thanksgiving meal. Instructing Charlie to take them to his dad, Tommy said they tasted similar to chicken. Charlie later stated that it was the finest holiday meal their family had ever known.
The best biographies of great men don’t give a short shrift to one’s youth. For it is in one’s youth that a man or woman learns—or doesn’t learn— the lessons that will be applied later in life. In this book we read of President Monson’s mother serving food to tramps during the Great Depression on the west side of Salt Lake City and of the loads of family members who lived in Monson’s old (and now defunct) 6-7th Ward. Not all of these people appear to have been gung-ho Mormons in terms of Church activity. And the happiness of these blue-collar families appears to be based on their family connections and their Vivian Park fishing trips rather than material prosperity. We read of Thomas Monson’s father taking a crippled “Uncle Elias” for Sunday drives to see the town, something Elias would otherwise be unable to do. We see a young Bishop Monson reaching out to experienced church members who thought they were “passed over” for Church callings. We see an Aaronic priesthood youth learning to fellowship others. Above all, we see the value of memory and the applications of life-lessons learned in the early days of one’s accountability and perhaps even before.
Reading this book has turned my own heart toward the chums of school days, aging grandmothers, inactive Church members, old neighborhood friends and the hard working, unassuming folks who provide services—often without thanks such as gas station attendants, garbage men and others who President Monson would notice. I have thought of orphans, widows…the poor. Finishing this book just before Christmas has filled me with a spirit of Christmas and a desire to make visits, to say “thank you” and to lend a smile to every person met—all hallmarks of President Monson’s ministry. It has also turned my thoughts to my own children (wasn’t it President Monson who said “prime time for teaching is fleeting”?). I want my own children to see their parents caring for the aged, bringing to mind the “old acquaintance” and inviting those inactive in church to “come back”.
The style of this biography deviates just a bit from those of other Church leaders I have read, including Eleanor Knowles’ “Howard W. Hunter”, Sheri Dew’s “Go Forward With Faith” (biography of Gordon B. Hinckley) or Bruce Hafen’s biography of Neal A. Maxwell, “A Disciple’s Life”. Similar to many other biographies of Mormon leaders, “To the Rescue” begins by retracing genealogy. One can hardly avoid mentioning a leader’s roots in a biography (especially a Mormon one!) but even for genealogy buffs like me, the one or two chapters devoted to this subject can get a bit dry and sometimes confusing.
But Swinton largely avoids delving too deeply into family history and where she does, she deftly connects the stories of President and Sister Monson’s forbears to present day circumstances and provides inspiring stories about their forbears’ early encounters with Mormonism and the missionaries. The book is also different in that it focuses primarily on President Monson’s own personal stories about his life and buttresses these accounts with contextual research and interviews with family members and Church leaders. In this way, the biography probably constitutes the greatest anthology of what many Latter-day Saints might refer to as President Monson stories. Nearly each page and chapter leaves the reader feeling warm and uplifted. Adapting this style of biography to another leader might not work but was probably the only effective way of telling the story of a man who at once can be very revealing and personal while also retaining a protective wall of privacy around his wife and family.
At the book signing I asked Swinton if she had read Thomas S. Monson’s journals (knowing that Sheri L. Dew had done so in researching “Go Forward with Faith). I was impressed with her response that she had “read all his journals”. Having read “Faith Rewarded” (a collection of President Monson’s journal entries about the opening of East Germany to missionary and temple work) I get the feeling that President Monson’s journals are focused on faith promoting experiences and recording the positive deeds of others. I doubt they include a lot of sensitive information from Church councils or private family information. Only President Monson and Heidi Swinton know the answer to that though. But the entries quoted in this book are in many ways an example of what writing a good diary is all about: keeping a positive record that will uplift one’s posterity and enlarge one’s own memory.
Swinton has authored other books covering topics that include Mormon history and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The only other book of hers I have read was “In the Company of Prophets”, a jewel of a book which recounts the personal experiences of D. Arthur Haycock, a secretary to several Church Presidents. Even so, I am going to take a guess and say that “To the Rescue” may well be her greatest professional accomplishment to date.
I hate to sound like a barker for Deseret Book, but I do believe this book should be a part of every family library. Singles and students would do well to put it on their bookshelf. If you can’t afford it, check it out at the library or borrow a copy from a friend. You won’t regret it.
Overall the writing style complemented the format of the book and provided appropriate commentary on President Monson’s own accounts. In the final analysis, this was a great biography—somewhat old fashioned (with a modern twist), always inspiring, a lot like President Monson himself. This book became an instant favorite and I am sure I will read it again. Thank you Sister Swinton for your skilled contribution and thank you President Monson for living a life that constitutes a minister’s greatest sermon.