Ever since reading The New New Journalism in Alice Truax’s class (what is new new journalism? you wonder–well, mostly it’s just a snappy title for a book of interviews with literary nonfiction writers)–I’ve wanted to pick up a Jon Krakauer book. It does take some doing for me to read nonfiction when there is so much unread fiction out there, though, so I put it off for more than a year. But luckily, the opportunity to start in on Mr. Krakauer’s oeuvre recently presented itself.
Due to some crazy Midwestern weather, my journey to Chicago the other week took about 7 hours, which ruined, among other things, my vacation reading time line. I’d brought only one book with me (Sag Harbor), planning on reading it on the flights there and home, but by the time I was ready to return to New York, I was mere pages away from finishing the novel. So, I plucked Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith off of Genevieve’s book shelf and delved in to one wacky narrative.
Mr. Krakauer uses the brutal murder of a young mother, Brenda Lafferty, and her baby Erica, by her brothers-in-law as a jumping off point for this examination of Mormans’ and Morman Fundamentalists’ faith, history and community. As with any good book, the actual information contained within is hard to summarize–if you are interested, and believe me, this is really interesting stuff, you should read the book (if you haven’t already–I am really late to the party with this one).
What I’d like to touch on here is the structure of the book. Mr. Krakauer undertakes the complicated work of telling several stories at once while keeping each relevant to the others. He navigates the outrageous, tawdry, tragic, convoluted history of Mormanism from its beginnings not very long ago in Upstate New York up through its many current day manifestations, frequently interrupting himself with footnotes to explain further some bit of information, or to help the reader trace family lineages from past to present. His telling is not linear–episodes in the lives of the Laffertys are interwoven, chapter by chapter, with more general history and several chapters center on different people, giving the reader insight into a bevy of FLDS families, communities and perspectives. How Mr. Krakauer was able to piece these chapters together is something I’d love to discuss with him one day–it seems like this is not the only order that could have worked, but for me, it did work. At times, I wanted to get on with the murder story and understand how the whole thing played out, but everything else was so gripping that I didn’t get frustrated. Near the end of the book, the more general themes and the story of the Laffertys come together as Mr. Krakauer writes about Ron Lafferty’s retrial, in which the issue at hand was: are Ron’s beliefs–among them that God told him to take the lives he took–any crazier than those of any other religious person? More bluntly, are all religious people mentally ill? When Ron is finally deemed sane, guilty and sentenced to death, Mr. Krakauer makes a startling, sad point that Ron was not the only one who listened when a higher power told him to spill blood.
In terms of the writing, one non-fiction quirk I’ve noticed and consistently despise is the interjection of minimal present-tense scene-setting to give what I think is unnecessary interview-context to a character’s comments. I feel like it is implicit that, if a quote is printed, or a story is being recounted that is attributed to a certain person, the author of the book, at one point or another, asked a question that elicited said response. Reading about whether a certain subject was sitting at her kitchen table or in the passenger seat of a car when she answered a question makes me remember that Jon Krakauer was also in the room, and then I wonder about that interaction rather than focus on the meat of the narrative.
In terms of the narrative, one element that I thought was missing is the reaction of Brenda Lafferty’s husband and Erica Lafferty’s father, Allen, the brother of their killers. Beyond a recounting of his discovery of the bodies, we never find out what the aftermath of the tragedies was like for him. I think it’s possible that Mr. Krakauer could have been unable to gain access to this information, but because the narrative is lacking because of its omission, I think he should have found some way to address it.
Some readers may take issue with Mr. Krakauer’s lack of neutrality in the telling of these stories–in fact, printed in the appendix to the book is a lengthy complaint and itemized list of issues taken by a Morman elder named Richard Turley. Also printed is Mr. Krakauer’s equally lengthy response, in which he admits fault for a handful of minor points, but largely upholds his version of the facts and his perspective. And although he doesn’t hide his views–right from the title, he calls Mormanism “a violent faith,”–he doesn’t downplay the fact that Mormans have faced brutal persecution, nor does he downplay that the vast majority of Mormans are productive, upstanding citizens with lovely families and values. So, he’s not neutral, but I also don’t think he’s unfair. I actually can’t imagine what a neutral book about LDS / FDLS history and culture could look like–there are some aspects of the story that truly demand taking a stand.