Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

I come to this book by way of the recent television series. Both are very good.

The television series, while based on a true crime, is largely fiction. The producers created entire characters and storylines to flesh out the historical plotline into multiple episodes. The book fleshes out its true crime story with a fascinating history of Mormonism focused on the religions violent past and how that past tied into the brutal murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica committed by her brothers-in-law and done in the service of God as an act of blood atonement.

Under the Banner of Heaven works as both true crime and as history, switching between the story of the Lafferty brothers and that of Joseph Smith and his followers. While reading, I never found myself wishing the book would move on from one to the other. Both “plotlines” were pretty hard to put down, to be honest. This is probably because I came to the book knowing very little about either topic, the murders or Mormonism, which I suspect is true for most non-Mormon readers. Growing up, I was taught that Mormons were a cult with a very good choir and that was about it. They are now a part of the U.S. History curriculum in California, where I live, but they are not exactly featured. This is probably an error; they are a large and growing group therefore something Americans should know about.

So, I found the history of Mormonism fascinating, and often shocking. While Mr. Krakauer does a fair job covering Mormon history, he is focused on the twin issues of polygamy and violence which is probably not really fair to Mormonism overall. There is plenty of violence in Mormon history, but that should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with American history, especially with the history of westward expansion. Pre-Civil War American was not exactly a peaceful place. There are several significant “massacres” in early Mormonism: several where the Mormons are clearly victims, including the one that killed Joseph Smith; and one where they are clearly vicious perpetrators. Mr. Krakauer presents these as context for the Lafferty brothers’ actions.

Mr. Krakauer’s book is nearly 20 years old now which may make my main issue with it a bit unfair. I suspect he would have written things differently today, but I felt that overall there was a serious lack of female voices in Under the Banner of Heaven. It’s an on-going issue with much of true crime as a genre– it tends to focus on the male killers to the detriment of the female victims. In Under the Banner of Heaven we learn a lot about the Lafferty brothers. We spend time with them as they travel the west, as they debate religion. We learn about their childhoods and what happened to them that led them to adopt the doctrines of plural marriage and blood atonement. We learn some about Brenda Lafferty, a good deal actually, and some about the women who married the Lafferty men, but the page count favors Brenda and Erica’s killers.

The same is true with the historical portion. Mr. Krakauer was limited by the scholarship in existence before 2003 when Under the Banner of Heaven was written, but I found myself wanting to hear more from the women involved. We do get a decent amount about Joseph Smith’s first wife and how she reacted to the doctrine of plural marriage along with a handful of other women mentioned, but I wanted to hear from them more often. I’ve not idea what kind of primary source documents exists, but I kept waiting for more voices of the women involved. What did the second and third wives think about what was done to them? For example..

I also wanted to know how plural marriage worked logistically. The American west was famed for many things, one being a shortage of marriageable women. In 1853 the city of San Francisco had about 50,000 residents. Of those, only 8,000 were women. A system of plural marriage has to leave large numbers of single men in its wake. This issue was never raised in Under the Banner of Heaven. But it must have been a crucial one, especially once Mormon doctrine revealed that a man needed to have three wives to secure his place in the next life.

Since I came to Under the Banner of Heaven via the television series, a final word about it. The series brings many more female voices to the modern/true-crime portion of the story. The invented detective is married with young daughters growing up in the Mormon church. This way, as he investigates the Lafferty’s and their belief in plural marriage, he comes to confront the Mormon church’s teachings and positions on women. Some of this felt a bit forced, but overall, it worked for me as a viewer.

If someone is writing a feminist Mormon history or knows of one, I’d be interested in reading it.

P.S. This book is my new favorite book, by the way. I don’t’ think that was at all clear in my post above. I loved it. As I said above, I had a tough time putting it down. When it did finally end, I wanted to know more about the people involved. Not really the Lafferty’s. I know more than enough about them. But Mr. Krakauer’s book can’t help but leave the reading wanting to know more about this history of Mormonism and the history of America.

2 thoughts on “Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

  1. I really liked this book when I read it–many years ago. It was my first Krakauer book, but not my last. I have read almost everything written by him and it has all been very good.

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