|Born / Died||1912–1991|
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In a career spanning more than four decades, Virginia Sorensen (1912 – 1991) produced an impressive body of work that encompassed fiction written for both adults and children. In the latter category, she won the Children’s Book Award for Plain Girl (Harcourt Brace, 1955) and the prestigious Newberry Medal for Miracles on Maple Hill (Harcourt Brace, 1956).
Virginia Eggertsen was born on February 17, 1912 in Provo, Utah, a descendent of Danish-American Mormon pioneers who had journeyed from Illinois to Utah in the 1840s. She was the third child of six of Claud Eggersten, a non-practicing Mormon, and his wife, the former Helen El Delva Blackett, a Christian Scientist, and spent her formative years raised in the close-knit rural community of Manti in central Utah. The seeds of her literary career were planted when she began writing poetry in elementary school and had one of her verses published in a local newspaper. She attended the American Fork High School where she honed her skills as a staff member of the school paper and the yearbook, and graduated as valedictorian. She enrolled at Brigham Young University but spent part of 1932 taking a journalism course at the University of Missouri. Upon her return to BYU, she met Frederick Sorensen and married him on August 16, 1933 in Salt Lake City. Instead of attending her graduation in 1934, Virginia Sorensen was in the hospital having delivered the couple’s first child, Elizabeth.
The Sorensen family moved to Palo Alto, California so Frederick could pursue a doctorate at Stanford. His mother came to live with them and her presence led to tension as she was critical of her daughter-in-law. Things were further exacerbated when Sorensen gave birth to the couple’s second child, Frederick, in 1936.
With her mother-in-law assuming responsibilities for the household operation, Sorensen had little to do. She enrolled in a poetry class taught by Yvor Winters at Stanford. After the family relocated to Terre Haute, Indiana, where Frederick Sorensen had accepted a teaching post, Virginia Sorensen began to write in earnest. Daily work eventually yielded the manuscript for her first novel, A Little Lower Than the Angels (Knopf, 1942). The central character is based on her husband’s great-grandmother who had traveled from Massachusetts to the Mormon community of Nauvoo, Illinois. The novel introduces themes that the author addressed in her other adult fiction: the conflict of believers and non-believers, particularly in a single family; the struggle to rebel against an oppressive system and how that rebellion can manifest itself; the place of women in a patriarchal society; and how does one define morality, particularly where religious practices (i.e., polygamy) may be seen by others as immoral.
While the novel received praise in most quarters, even in her home state of Utah, the leadership of the Mormon Church condemned it resulting in local bookstores refusing to carry the novel. Knopf asked her to produce a second historical novel, and she and her husband had decided to jointly research the life of Samuel Brannan, with her husband writing a factual biography and Sorensen undertaking a novelistic approach to her life. The editors at Knopf, however, rejected her manuscript, so she turned her attention to writing On This Star (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1946), a triangular romance involving Mormon brothers. The novel earned mixed reviews, as did her next effort, The Neighbors (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1947).
Sorensen fared much better with her fourth book, The Evening and the Morning (Harcourt Brace, 1949), which many feel is her best work. A complex drama about a woman returning to her rural Utah hometown who must confront her past and deal with difficulties in the present, the book received excellent reviews. Her writings were among the first to address the issue of polygamy as well as to depict adultery and illicit love from a female perspective.
In 1946, Sorensen received a Guggenheim Fellowship and she traveled to Mexico to research indigenous peoples. Those studies found their way into the novel The Proper Gods (Harcourt Brace, 1951). A second Guggenheim in 1954 allowed her to visit Denmark where she studied the genealogies of the settlers of the Sanpete Valley in Utah. That material found its way into Kingdom Come (Harcourt Brace, 1960) and the children’s book Lotte’s Locket (Harcourt Brace, 1964). She produced her last novel for adults, The Man With the Key (Harcourt Brace), in 1974.
Sorensen had begun writing for children in 1953 with Curious Missie (Harcourt Brace), about a young girl with a thirst for knowledge. She hit her zenith with her next two juvenile fictions, Plain Girl and Miracles on Maple Hill . The former centered on an Amish girl forced to attend a public school against her parents’ wishes, while the latter dealt with a city family who relocates to a rural environment.
In 1957, Sorensen divorced her first husband because she had fallen in love with travel writer and novelist Alec Waugh, whom she met when both were attending a writers’ retreat at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. She and Waugh eventually married in 1969 and settled in Tangier, Morocco. The couple returned to the United States in 1980, a few months before Waugh’s death in 1981.
Sorensen, who wrote the autobiography Where Nothing Is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood (Harcourt Brace) in 1963, died on December 24, 1991 at the age of 79.
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