Jon Krakauer is a something of a literary patron saint for doomed adventurers -- those who ascend merciless mountains (Into Thin Air, Eiger Dreams), or live out the Rousseauian ideal in places with no margin for error (Into The Wild).
The subjects of his latest effort, however, are less likely to pore over Tibetan topo maps than the Book of Mormon. And when they grow weary of the revelations of Mormonism's founding prophet Joseph Smith, they make up their own. They're Mormon fundamentalists, ex-communicated from the official Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and bent on maintaining its most contentious founding principle: polygamy.
Under the Banner of Heaven is in part a "Mormonism for Dummies," an In Cold Blood thriller, and a firm polemic against theocracy. Covering so much ground in a single tome, the Boulder-based climber-turned-writer bites off about as much as any writer could reasonably chew in 331 pages. There's a history of Joseph Smith and the persecution of his first followers in mid-19th-century America, in addition to accounts of the lowlights of Mormon history like the Mountain Meadow Massacre of 1857, where a caravan of Arkansas pioneers were butchered by a Mormon militia disguised as Indians.
To remain current (but hardly off-point), Krakauer devotes a chapter to the recent kidnapping of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, whose captor, Brian David Mitchell, was a Mormon fundamentalist. In addition, Under the Banner includes fascinating profiles of contemporary fundamentalist communities in Arizona, Canada and Mexico, where polygamy is the norm and state welfare serves as the manna for those who decry the government as satanic.
Krakauer hangs his indictment of Mormonism on the grizzly 1984 slaying of Brenda Lafferty and her 18-month-old daughter by her brothers-in-law, Ron and Dan. Believed they were called by God to end this outspoken woman's life, the brothers were prone to cataloging their numerous revelations, even as their newfound spirituality resulted in the dissolution of their families.
The author argues that a faith founded on the divine revelations of its leaders is prone to further revelations from its own flock. After all, the argument goes, who's to say that Joseph Smith's conversations with God are less valid than the ones telling Ron Lafferty to slit a baby's throat?
Krakauer has already got the LDS leadership's long underwear in a knot as evidenced by the fact that its PR machine has seen fit to send a three-page refutation of Under the Banner to editors and publishers throughout the country. And it's not hard to understand their grievance as the book pays scant lip service to the fact that most Mormons do not grow into murdering polygamists.
However, such flaws don't negate Krakauer's larger argument, which is that Mormonism's "crazy uncles" are squarely rooted within the faith's theology and history. Krakauer points to the concept of "blood atonement," where the murder of gentiles, i.e., non-Mormons, takes on a virtue all its own. While the LDS church may have put the kibosh on polygamy over a century ago, it was a lot slower to open its doors to nonwhites, which it did in 1978. According to Krakauer, interracial marriage is still discouraged from the church's all-white male leadership.
Under the Banner is likely to raise the blood pressure of Mormons and theocrats alike. But like his other bestsellers, Under The Banner also is an addictive page-turner. When our executive branch is full of warmongers who evoke God's name in their battles against those of the same mind, God and the sword are still quite cozy bedfellows. Whether or not one agrees with the author's Latter Day indictment, it's hard to deny its relevancy.
-- John Dicker