Gilda Trillim: Shepherdess of Rats

Gilda Trillim: Shepherdess of Rats

A woman struggles to discern the meaning of life when she is taken as POW in Vietnam.


Steven L. Peck's intriguing, literary narrative follows Gilda Trillim's many adventures; from her origins on a potato farm in Idaho, to an Orthodox Convent in the Soviet Union, to her life as a badminton champion...

When Gilda is taken prisoner during the Vietnam war, she finds comfort in the company of the rats who cohabit her cell. Follow Gilda as she struggles to comprehend the meaning of life in this uncanny, philosophical novel which explores Mormonism, spirituality and what it means to be human.

WINNER of Best Novel at the Association of Mormon Letters Awards 2017


What if whatever it was Orson F. Whitney once said about Mormon literature was realized, and we could finally claim someone like a Shakespeare or a Milton of our own? And what if that writer was, for the most part, mad—more of a William Blake than a William Wordsworth, more of a James Joyce than a Jane Austen? This is the title character of Steven L. Peck’s Gilda Trillim: Shepherdess of Rats. She is brought to life through Peck’s skill as a write and thinker, and through his audacity—challenging and provoking the reader, and particularly the Mormon reader, in strange, original ways. Rich and unexpected, the novel explores universal themes of grace, love, sacrifice as well as universal questions about the mind and body, free will, and how anything is known–including and the reality and nature of god. This is achieved through the well-wrought interplay of poetry, philosophy, narrative, and the artful posing of the same devastating questions we have all asked ourselves. Gilda Trillim has already been called “a milestone of Mormon literature.” This is true not just for its message but for its medium, harnessing the form of the novel to show that imagination can bring us closer to truth. Fiction is a faculty, helping us transcend the limitations of our natural understandings and perceptions. Odd, complex, and unprecedented, Peck’s Gilda will stand out in Mormon literature not just this year, but for many years. ~ Association of Mormon Letters Awards

Gilda Trillim, the heroine of this story by Mormon novelist Steven Peck (pictured, below), was famous as a writer and as a volleyball player. She can no longer play volleyball because of the loss of her right hand as a result of consuming the psychedelic Ayahuasca, but she is famous enough as a writer that she was included in a USO tour of Vietnam in 1968, reading from her writings. She certainly was a civilian, and the Viet Cong had no logical reason to capture her, but they did, and they sent her to a horrible prison. This hellish place was apparently somewhere in Laos or Cambodia. Her one-handed condition freed her from the hard work all the other POW's had to perform, but this did not make her condition any easier; it added boredom to her burden. And it was here, about halfway through the story, that she befriended the rats. The rats, bless them, were a big comfort to her. And she was happy to lead them in songs. So why is she "shepherdess of rats" rather than “choir-mistress of rats"? I think perhaps this means she is, so to speak, the "goddess of rats." She gave all her food to her rodent friends, and they more than returned the favor. The scenes describing how they fed her are, frankly, disgusting. (I do not recommend reading this part while you are eating; you could lose your own meal.) Her captivity ended when a Soviet delegation visited the prisoners; one of the Russian recognized her because he had a relative who had also competed in international volleyball. More importantly, Gilda, just as she is about to be released, had a beautiful vision of the Heavenly Mother, an event profoundly suggestive about the nature of a universe in which a human woman nurtures and befriends despised rodents, and brings music out of them. The basis of this vision is the LDS concept that Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother together are God. In Genesis 1:26-27 we read that "The Elohim said, 'Let us make humanity in our image and our likeness....male and female.” The plain and obvious meaning is that the word Elohim (which is basically a plural) refers to both female and male beings. Peck in fact speaks in this book of Heavenly Mothers and Heavenly Fathers. (This is a bit unorthodox, but who am I to split hairs or to be pedantic? Interested parties with access to Wikipedia know I'm the most heretical of heretics, and am in no position to throw any pebbles.) Non-LDS readers might think that this aspect of the book would be of no interest to them, but I believe they are wrong. Other spiritual traditions revere an archetypal or Divine Mother, and one need not be committed to LDS theology to be moved by the power of this scene, and its deep implications for the rest of the story. A purportedly LDS theological concept presented in this story is said to be derived from founder Joseph Smith himself through John Taylor, by way of a fictitious LDS Apostle named Arnfinnur Skaldskapur. The teaching is that Joseph, through his great spiritual and physical strength, was able to pull the Nephite metal plates from the earth, in spite of the resistance of earth spirits. And as a result, "Where once was ordinary history he pulled into the universe sacred history." A charming idea; we might wish it were more than fiction. I am ambivalent about this book. Parts of it are excellent, insightful, and enjoyable, but the one feeding scene might well gross out many readers, and lead to their putting the book down. You have been forewarned, so go ahead and enjoy the good stuff. ~ The Peaceable Journal, Vegetarian Friends - Issue 143

Gilda Trillim is a novel of ideas with a terrific protagonist, an astonishing set of events and incidents, and a delightfully innovative structural premise. The frame story: Kattrim G. Mender, tending sheep for a month on the family’s ranch in the La Sal Mountains of southeastern Utah, has written a master’s thesis on the writer (and badminton player, world traveler, teacher of writing, mystic, and so much more) Gilda Trillim for the School of Esoteric Literature, a program in the Mervin Peake Online University of the Arts and Science[s?]. This is in 2019. Mender (note the symbolism of the name - note the potential symbolism of all the names in this novel) was introduced to the subject of his thesis by his mother, he tells us in the preface, but helped along in his interest by his mentor Mary Locken, who knew that, like Gilda, Kattrim is/was Mormon and, like Gilda, lived in, or came from, the LaSals. We get our first taste of this “esoteric” writer after eight pages of descriptive generalization: “Current trends have viewed her work as possibility generating literature... she was writing a kind of redemption in which the ‘saving’ comes from embracing both the strange format and the words offered”. Anyone familiar with the language of literary criticism will find this familiar, mildly irritating, and also enticing: so when do we get to see what she wrote? When do we get to see what Kattrim G. Mender has discovered about this writer? That’s the rest of the book. Twenty-three “vignettes” offer pieces of the multi-layered, multi-dimensional human being that was Gilda Trillim. (She’s dead now; one of the vignettes is the story of her tragic death.) Some vignettes are longer than others. All have footnotes - some of these are also longer than others, and many of them refer to real-world texts, while many of them do not. It’s part of the fun to decide which is which - not that it matters, really, in the unfolding of the fragmented, incompletable plot. Mender’s dilemma is that there are documents (Gilda’s own spotty letters and journal entries) that seem to reveal Gilda’s formidable and paradoxical mind, and documents by others (friends, especially Babs Lake; critics; skeptics) that contradict or question. Who was she? Was she mad? How are her books to be taken? What is to be made of her? This is Mender’s quest. He can’t come to any definitive answers - don’t look for those. (Spoiler - sorry!) All he can do - all any of us can do, ever, right? - is assemble the vignettes he’s found and lay them out in an order that might have some meaning. Which is where the ideas come in. Because Gilda is inveterately curious, and she wants to know the why and wherefore of everything. A world champion badminton player; a literary artist seeking after metaphors she cannot find (“everything is like nothing,” p. 16); a world traveler; a child of more-or-less orthodox Mormons who can’t help questioning the universe (“what if the eternities are open? What if there is no set eternity to which we are heading?” p. 22); a prisoner of war, a hiker in Hawaii, perhaps a resident of a psychiatric hospital, but even that’s “shrouded in mystery” (p. 185); perhaps, most of all, a mystic - Gilda is many selves, always interrogating and interacting with the forces that buoy or threaten to engulf her. Maybe she’s manic. But that’s just me - Kattrim G. Mender does not speculate about this. I wonder it, because often her letters or journal notes are full of light, even or especially when she’s contacting those forces, through experimental substances or through prayer or through extreme experience. (She loses a hand during one of these, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how. Even then, the experience is more full of light than otherwise.) Other times, though, she suffers, both mentally and physically, especially perhaps during her stay in a POW camp in VietNam. This section is painful to read, but it’s here that she becomes the “shepherdess of rats,” the goddess of a choir of rodents; it’s here she comes in contact with the Shepherdess of All. That’s me again. Kattrim G. Mender doesn’t call her that. But Gilda’s experience is very high, very expansive; the Shepherdess comforts her in extremis and guides some of her later endeavors in inevitable ways. Gilda is in touch with the heights and the depths. She holds nothing back. Perhaps you can see that one of the great virtues of this book is that Gilda becomes real to the reader. Strange and varied as her experiences are, the reader follows eagerly, wanting more, wanting answers. It feels as though Peck (Kattrim? Gilda?) is falling over himself (her?) to get down all that comes through in the documents. The language is sometimes uneven, academic and formal and analytical in moments, in others colloquial, intimate, vulnerable. Gilda is a poet, a lover of words, but she’s also a fact-collector, and in any one vignette Kattrim G. Mender foregrounds the trajectory from jungle hellhole to unexpected choir of transformative melodic invention, from a child’s visit to her mother’s pantry to an awareness of the souls of inanimate beings…and beyond. Is she mad, then? manic depressive? Genius? Alone in her own world, or connected far, far beyond this small one? Even if you read the book you won’t know. But remember this: all the best writing invites readers into great minds, and so it is with Gilda Trillim. In a blurb inside the front cover, Michael Austin observes astutely that “Gilda Trillim (but really Steven Peck) starts to answer some of the biggest questions of all…” The voluminous mind we get to follow here is Trillim’s and Peck’s, Kattrim’s and the Shepherdess’s, the speculator’s and the reader’s. Jana Reiss says in another blurb that this is “one of the best stories ever to emerge from the Mormon imagination,” and Peck himself wrote on his Facebook page, before Gilda was published, that “you’ve never read anything like it!” True statements all. We are lucky to be around for this book. Get it fast, and read it many times. You won’t get tired of it. It’s amazing. ~ Julie J. Nichols, Association for Mormon Letters

Like Peck’s other fiction, the Trillim posts sought aggressively to push contemporary Mormon fiction away from existing paradigms and guide it to realms hitherto unexplored by Mormon writers. As a reader and scholar of Mormon fiction, I have taken to calling recent works that push against established directions in Mormon fiction the “New Mormon Fiction.” He added, [Peck’s] “ambiguous use of Mormonism, a kind of foregrounding of Mormonism without privileging it, allows it to speak just as well to Mormon as non-Mormon readers, thus enabling a multiplicity of equally engaging readings. ~ Scott Hales, Dissertation,

Beautifully bizarre! I could not have taken this dizzying journey except for a master hand leading me through the surprising giggles into the even more surprising blessings of grace, wisdom and healing. I really don’t think Gilda is fiction, for I fell in love with her, and as she and I both know, love is stunningly real. ~ Carol Lynn Pearson, author of The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men

What a mad, marvelous, and compulsively fascinating heroine Steven Peck has created in this novel - a woman who can spend a year painting pictures of an apple seed and write a novel describing the contents of a single drawer. By carefully scrutinizing these microcosmos of everyday life, Gilda Trillim (but really Steven Peck) starts to answer some of the biggest questions of all, like "Where did God come from?", "How do complex patterns emerge from random chaos?", and "Why does anything even exist at all? ~ Michael Austin, author of Useful Fictions: Evolution, Anxiety, and the Origins of Literature

Gilda Trillim has sprung from Steven Peck's head as fully-formed and singular a woman as you'll ever meet. Hers is an engrossing, uncanny world, pulled into existence by an author at the peak of his creative power. Absolutely compulsive reading ~ Emily H. Butler, author of Freya and Zoos

You are one of the lucky few to be living on this very planet at a time when a physical copy of Gilda Trillim’s wit and wisdom can be placed into your waiting hands. I envy the roller coaster of colorful images and wrenching emotions your mind is about to enjoy as you uncover Gilda’s spunk and spontaneity as a one-handed naturalist who writes creatively, paints particularly, and has a wicked badminton return. Come with her as she susses out the meaning of love through engaging with potheads and fishheads and attempt to understand her wide-reaching philosophical musings that stretch across the cosmos and then constrict into the core of an appleseed. Even though you are not a rat (unless you are and then congratulations for getting your paws upon this scripture!) you will find much to learn about the universe and finding one’s place within it. By willing the one-handed, full-hearted, and perhaps-insane Gilda Trillim into existence, Steven Peck again captures the wonder and failings of being human and the mystical connections between the natural and religious world that make life so delightfully complicated. ~ Emily W. Jensen, writer, blogger, and editor of A Book of Mormons

Steven L. Peck
Steven L. Peck Steven L. Peck is professor of Biology at Brigham Young University, teaching the history and philosophy of biology and bioethics. He has pub...
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