Book Review – Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

3 stars. For a book about “murder! prophets! sex! revelations! polygamy! exodus!”, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith manages to be somewhat, well, boring and pedantic. That’s especially a disappointment when it comes from a writer with Jon Krakauer’s talent for utterly engrossing prose, even when I’m not as committed to the people he portrays (Into the Wild) or the axe he has to grind (Where Men Win Glory) as he is.

Under the Banner of Heaven is the tale of the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica by two of her brothers-in-law, Ron and Dan Lafferty, purportedly acting on a divine revelation that they must be killed. Krakauer intertwines the brothers’ history of fundamentalism–with a strong fixation on the concept of polygamous plural marriage–with an account of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from Joseph Smith’s revelation of The Book of Mormon to modern day. This history centers around plural marriage, with occasional detours to less-than-proud moments in Mormon history such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the possibility that some of the expedition members of John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the Grand Canyon died at the hands of Mormons.

The real problem with this book is that the lack of focus caused me to disconnect from the narrative and people. The Lafferty brothers feel like caricatures, and so little time is spent on Brenda that there’s no emotional resonance to her horrific murder. This would have been a much stronger book had it told the story of Brenda and her murderers than if it had tried to tell the story of a whole religion. Out of the book’s 26 chapters, 18 of them are devoted to Mormon history or an exploration of splinter fundamentalists groups, polygamist communities, and events such as the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping that are only tenuously connected to the Lafferty murders.

Krakauer writes people and reconstructs events well; witness the vibrancy with which he gave the story of Pat Tillman’s life and the bulldog tenacity with which he explores the life and death of Chris McCandless. He’s not a terribly engaging writer of history, though, giving seemingly endless lists of names, places, and happenings without bringing them to life. I feel that this book was a tedious lecture rather than an enlightening read. He attempted to highlight the lurid, extreme, and violent of the fringes of the Mormon church, combine it with the horrible acts of the Lafferty brothers, and somehow turn it into an indictment of mainstream Mormonism and religion in general. For what it’s worth, I do think he did a good job of impartially recounting events; it’s simply that an argument from the specific to the general doesn’t work because it’s logically fallacious.

Krakauer’s inability to choose whether to tell about the dirty laundry of the Mormon church or the story of Brenda Lafferty’s murder and the poisonous religious fundamentalism of her killers makes Under the Banner of Heaven a strictly pedestrian effort.

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