Alex Haley, author of Roots, once said, “The family is our refuge and our springboard; nourished on it, we can advance to new horizons.”
For Latter-day Saints, this rings especially true, and Dr. Donald G. Godfrey’s book, In Their Footsteps: Mormon Pioneers of Faith (Deseret Book, 2018), helps put that quote in perspective.
Godfrey’s work looks at the pioneering lives of the Joseph Godfrey and Charles Ora Card families, beginning in Liverpool, England. They travel from the Eastern states to Nauvoo and Utah, and eventually settle in Canada (the first Mormon community, in fact). The family grows. The Godfreys are uprooted and put down roots, make do with next to nothing, and leave their mark not only as Latter-day Saints, but as citizens.
While many pioneer stories cover only the trek across the plains, Godfrey’s is notably different in its scope. Godfrey’s book takes a risk in providing a sweeping panorama and broader definition of the pioneer experience—the narrative spans the mid-Victorian Era at the height of Britain’s industrial age and brings the family across the plains to America, continuing up through the 1990s.
However, the reader never feels lost in the vast history. Stories give sparkling personality to people who would otherwise be dates on a genealogical chart, as this 1986 gem from the journal of Floyd Godfrey (the author’s father) shows: “I hate this arthritis in my left knee (my companion for 40 years). I love modesty. I like pretty women (unless they smoke).”
Godfrey’s ancestors do the expected (is there any pioneer narrative in which someone doesn’t cross the plains barefoot?), but also the unexpected, as tales recount the same Floyd Godfrey biting a hole through his tongue in his youth and later “grossing out his children and grandchildren” by pulling it out with his thumb and forefinger. In these moments, Godfrey’s subjects truly shine.
In Their Footsteps covers moments of simple faith and spiritual triumph common to the early church, such as facing persecution with grace and accepting mission calls in a time when anti-Mormon sentiment was rife. It also focuses on modern spiritual moments, like Floyd Godfrey’s experience as a bishop giving marital counsel to struggling couples, and falling in love with the Taiwanese people during his time there as a senior missionary with his wife.
Refreshingly, the book doesn’t shy away from stories that often get sanitized or watered down in LDS narratives. Godfrey deals frankly with abuse, adultery and divorce (without delving into lurid detail), humanizing his subjects with trials that seem more familiar to a modern audience than handcarts and cholera. While Godfrey does not dwell on such subjects, choosing to tell the whole truth gives depth and resonance to his ancestors.