I traveled to visit family over the holidays, and I have become a big fan of audiobooks for long car trips! For this trip, I listened to Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. (I read his Into the Wild, the story of Christopher McCandless’s fatal journey into the Alaskan wilderness, two summers ago. I was impressed by the movie version, which I saw first, and I liked the book even better. Big surprise, right? So when I was prepping for this trip, I was pleased to discover that Under the Banner of Heaven was almost exactly the right length for the first half of my drive.)
Krakauer begins this book with the 1984 murders of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter, Erica. The two were killed by Ron and Dan Lafferty, the eldest brothers of Brenda’s husband, who were members of the FDLS (an unsanctioned fundamentalist offshoot of the Mormon church). Apparently, Ron blamed his sister-in-law (at least in part) for his divorce. When Ron (a disaffected member of the Mormon church) became affiliated with the FDLS, he informed his wife that he planned to engage in the practice of plural marriages (a part of the Mormon church’s history and a tenant of the modern FDLS); his wife was less than enthused by the idea, and she fled the state with the couple’s children. Dan, who actually committed the killings, did so when his brother convinced him that God had ordained the “removal” of his sister-in-law and her daughter. (According to Ron, God spoke to him directly, ordering him to kill a total of four people.)
This is just a starting point for Krakauer, though. As he did in Into the Wild, he jumps from one related topic to another. (Some readers criticize this freewheeling, stream-of-consciousness, writing-by-association style of reportage, but it works for me.) He splices together the story of these 1984 murders (and the punishment meted out to the two brothers) with a history of the Mormon church (from Joseph Smith to Brigham Young to Salt Lake City), the violence he finds in the history of that church (both by members of the church and against members of the church), the place of women in the history of that church (including the role of polygamy in the early church), the growing popularity of the Mormon faith in twenty-first century America, the fundamentalist/FDLS movement (which has been roundly rejected by the official Mormon church), the FDLS communities that still exist (and that still practice polygamy—and that allegedly force girls as young as 14 into plural marriages) in the United States, and some recent high-profile crimes committed by FDLS members.
Krakauer’s book has drawn some criticism for being anti-Mormon (and anti-religion), but I didn’t find that to be the case. Krakauer never condemns the Mormon faith; he seems more interested in exploring the radical fringe of this faith (and how this fundamentalist group developed). To do so necessitates an exploration of the mainstream religion’s origins and development. (As Krakauer points out early in the book, all religions seem to breed fundamentalist extremists. Why does this happen? How? Krakauer explores these questions by exploring the Mormon faith—both because, as he says in the afterword, one of his closest childhood friends was a Mormon and because the Mormon religion is the only major faith to develop in a time of recorded history.)
This book made a 350-mile drive (in the rain) pass amazingly quickly—after a time, the weather and the traffic all disappeared as Krakauer read. I was completely drawn into the book, and I was fascinated by everything that I learned.