Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Under the Banner of Heaven

Finished Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakaur a couple nights ago. I'd been wanting to read this book for a while. I really enjoyed Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, and this had an intriguing subject - Mormon fundamentalists who murdered a young woman and her baby girl after having a prophesy to do so.

Parts of the book were really interesting. I learned a lot about the history of Mormonism and frankly think that it's a big enough subject that it would be covered in greater detail in American History classes. After all, if the United States government was willing to send in troops to take down this religion, that's noteworthy as far as I'm concerned. Also interesting was reading Joseph Smith's justification for polygamy. He figured if he wasn't supposed to sleep with multiple women, God wouldn't have given him those desires. So, he can rationalize sleeping with very young women, but he can't rationalize his followers having a freaking cup of coffee? I also enjoyed the story about the Lafferty brothers, how they came to embrace Fundamentalism, and the horrifying results of their faith. There was also a chapter about the trial of Ron Lafferty that gave me interesting food for thought. The man had a vision from God that told him that he should "remove" his sister-in-law and her baby girl, so he did and felt almost no remorse for it. He also believed that the angel Moroni was trying to enter his body through his anus. He also got a vision that he should murder his brother and accomplice Dan. The guy's insane, right? The prosecution made a very compelling argument that, given his upbringing, all of these beliefs were rational and sane.

On the other hand, the book had some serious flaws. The biggest one was that the story of the Laffertys was the centerpiece, and it just wasn't strong enough to hold together the entire book. Krakaur had about 50 pages of solid, compelling Lafferty story, about 40 pages of Mormon history, and a whole lot of other text about Fundamentalist Mormons that really felt like filler. I found myself skimming parts of the story to get to the point. Krakaur also did the same thing he's done in his other books, which is to start every chapter with a lengthy quotation. I could never get myself interested enough to read a several-paragraph long quotation and wound up just skipping them.

Overall, I'm glad that I read it, but I'm also glad I didn't pay for it (it was a gift). There were parts of it that were genuinely chilling, and I learned a lot about a growing segment of American culture and a part of our country's history that I didn't know very well. Unfortunately, this all could have been done in a really solid magazine article, not an entire book.

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