Rating:Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer. Doubleday (2003), 372 pages.
One of the exceptional things about Krakauer’s writing is his talent for branching off into ten different fascinating offshoots of his topic, while building suspense by dropping certain threads at crucial moments and picking them up again at a later point. Every offshoot is always perfectly integrated into his main topic. He also astounds me with his ability to make any conceivable topic gripping. In fact, I would read about World War II submarines if Krakauer wrote about them.
This does make the task of finding a suitable quotation difficult, because Under the Banner of Heaven is about so many things. Should I look for a quote about the polygamists and pedophiles of Bountiful, Canada? A first-person account of being a plural wife in Colorado? Something relating to the history of Mormonism? The mid-1980s murder of a mother and child? The kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart two years ago? This book is about many, many things, almost all of which are astonishing, distressful, lurid, and/or deeply disturbing. The quotation I finally selected is not particularly lurid or astonishing, but it does highlight how colorful the historical segments of the book are.
Another Saint who participated in the massacre later reported that while the men from the Fancher party were being executed by their Mormon escorts, the women and children were attacked “by the Indians, among whom were Mormons in disguise.” An Arkansan named Nancy Huff, who was four years old at the time, later reported, “I saw my mother shot in the forehead and fall dead. The women and children screamed and clung together.”
The slaughter was over in a matter of minutes, leaving an estimated 120 emigrants dead. Approximately fifty of the victims were men, twenty were women, and fifty were children or adolescents. Out of the entire Fancher wagon train, only seventeen lives were spared—all of them children no more than five years old, deemed too young to remember enough to bear witness against the Saints. Those were taken to Mormon homes to be raised as Latter-day Saints; some were placed in the households of the very men who had murdered their parents and siblings. In 1859 an agent of the federal government managed to find all seventeen survivors and return them to their Arkansas kin, but before handing the kids over their Mormon keepers had the audacity to demand thousands of dollars in payment for feeding and schooling the youngsters while they were in the Saints’ care.
(Authors, agents, and publishers: I would dearly love to see a first-person novelization of this event. Somebody please begin work on this right away, and send an advance copy to The Book Shark.)
This review first appeared in March 2004
By Donna Long