Here’s another Epinions review that I reposted on my old blog and am reposting as/is on this blog. Jon Krakauer’s book about Mormonism is well worth a read, even years later. I wrote this review in June 2006, but the book remains relevant today, especially as Netflix airs its new documentary, Murder Among the Mormons.
Those of you who regularly read my book reviews on Epinions.com may have noticed that recently, I’ve been reading and writing reviews of a lot of books about Mormonism. I thought I would take a break from the subject until I happened to run across Jon Krakauer’s 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith at Fort Belvoir’s thrift shop. I had just read several very interesting Epinions reviews about the book and had already planned to purchase it at full price. I couldn’t resist when I saw it priced at $4 at the thrift shop. I picked it up last weekend and wasn’t able to put it down until I finished reading it last night.
Under the Banner of Heaven is a fascinating book. It seems to be part true crime, part history book, and part expose. At this book’s core is the story of Dan and Ron Lafferty, two brothers who, on July 24, 1984, believed they had received a commandment from God to brutally murder their sister in law, Brenda Lafferty, and her fifteen month old daughter, Erica. July 24th is a significant day in LDS culture. It’s Pioneer Day, which is the anniversary of the day Brigham Young and his followers found the Salt Lake Valley. Brenda Lafferty was a vibrant, outspoken woman who had apparently encouraged her sisters in law to be assertive in their dealings with their husbands. She paid for her rebellious streak with her life not long after Ron Lafferty’s wife decided to leave him.
The Lafferty brothers were members of a fundamentalist sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Popularly known as Mormon Fundamentalists and collectively known as the FLDS church, this group is not the same as the mainstream LDS church. One of the most striking differences between the FLDS church and the main LDS church is that Mormon Fundamentalists practice plural marriage, which is a form of polygamy. Although the mainstream LDS church denounced polygamy in 1890, Mormon fundamentalists are ultra conservatives who believe that polygamy was an essential teaching according to the LDS church’s founder and first prophet, Joseph Smith. True believing Mormon Fundamentalist men take multiple wives and typically have many children who grow up in the faith.
In Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer relates the story of the Lafferty brothers, but he also includes the history of the LDS church and its splinter groups. He writes about Colorado City, Arizona/ Hildale, Utah the FLDS community on the Arizona/Utah borders and Bountiful in British Columbia. He includes chapters about famous and infamous FLDS church members who have been in the news over the past few years. There’s a chapter on famed polygamist Tom Green and one on Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee. Krakauer weaves these stories in with the core story about the Lafferty brothers and their gruesome murders, effectively showing how everything is interrelated.
Krakauer, who grew up an agnostic among Mormons in Corvallis, Oregon, writes in his epilogue that this book turned out differently than he expected. He wanted to write a book that explored and compared the LDS Church’s present with its past. But as he started writing Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer found himself drifting onto a different path. I was very impressed with Krakauer’s ability to look at the many aspects of the LDS church’s very convoluted and colorful history and write a book that was both very interesting and informative. Krakauer writes that his book was generally not well-received among many members of the LDS church. I never detected any bias for or against the church on Krakauer’s part. Yes, he did expose some of the more troubling aspects of the church’s past, but he also wrote about how Mormon pioneers were persecuted. I came away with the idea that Krakauer was just reporting the facts without necessarily passing judgment.
I will warn that parts of this book are very sad and upsetting. Krakauer does not mince words as he describes how Brenda Lafferty and her daughter were killed. Reading about Brenda Laffety’s murder was very troubling; but to me, it was much more disturbing to read about the way her innocent child was butchered. You may not want to read this book if graphic descriptions of brutality keep you up at night.
Although this book was published three years ago, it’s quite timely today. Krakauer provides a lot of information about Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Jeffs was very recently put on the FBI’s most wanted list for sexual conduct with minors and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with minors. Krakauer explains how Warren Jeffs came to be a prophet and provides chilling information about Jeffs’ late father, Rulon Jeffs, the former prophet who was once known as “Uncle Rulon”.
On the surface, Under the Banner of Heaven seems to be about a double murder. Looking deeper, this book is about much more than two heinous crimes. It casts a revealing look at the relationship between mainstream Mormonism, the fastest growing religion in America, and Mormon Fundamentalism, a faith that few people understand. Krakauer spent many hours interviewing people for this book, including Dan Lafferty himself. The Lafferty brothers insist that they were on a mission from God when they killed Brenda Lafferty and her daughter. In fact, they meant to kill at least two more people that day, but perhaps God intervened on their behalf.
Under the Banner of Heaven is not an easy book to read. Krakauer packs a lot in 365 pages and he does a good job of explaining a religious environment that is foreign to many people. I think he’s written an important and riveting book, although I suspect that it’s not a popular choice among devout Mormons. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading about true crime and history. I found this book well-written, well-researched, and extremely hard to put down. I also learned a lot more than I bargained for when I bought this book.
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