Review of “Under the Banner of Heaven”

Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book, Under the Banner of Heaven, is about Mormonism in the United States. Krakauer tells the complete story of Mormonism’s birth and maturation, a feat made possible by the fact that the religion has only been in existence for less than two hundred years. Krakeur uses the particularly gruesome 1984 murders of a Mormon woman and her baby as a focal point for which the entire book spins on. Krakauer simultaneously tells the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty, the Mormon extremist murderers, and the birth and development of Mormonism, starting with the now legendary Joseph Smith. The two stories feed each other and overlap as the book progresses. Krakauer offers a detailed, yet fluid account of Mormonism’s history. Although those who aren’t interested in a history lesson might put the book down, it is well worth the read because just the story of Mormonism in and of itself is interesting and compelling. It is also a good read because Krakauer is a good writer and organizes the book in such a way to make the story of Mormonism’s progression suspenseful. Moreover, there are side-plots within the two big stories, and along the way, we meet several interesting characters who are either active Mormons, excommunicated Mormons, or ex-Mormons who managed to escape the confines of the Church.

Jon Krakauer, in addition to being a professional mountaineer, is the author of four bestselling nonfiction works, Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven, and Where Men Win Glory: The Pat Tillman Odyssey. Under the Banner of Heaven, published in 2003, is Krakauer’s third book and signifies a marked departure from his first two books, Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, which focused largely on humans struggling in the face of some of nature’s more extreme forms.

Krakauer wrote the book for fairly obvious reasons: to expose some of the evils running rampant in fundamentalist Mormonism. It is important to note that the book is not an indictment of mainstream Mormonism. Instead, it focuses on the extremist Mormon communities tucked away in Utah, Arizona, Mexico, and Canada. The primary issue Krakauer focuses on is polygamy. Within fundamentalist Mormon sects, the practice of polygamy remains well intact. Now, Krakaeur doesn’t attack polygamy itself from a moral or ethical perspective. Instead, the specific way that fundamentalist Mormons go about practicing polygamy is the source for contention. Within these communities, young girls are chosen from a very young age – as young as thirteen and fourteen years old – and married off to men more than three or four times their age. These Mormon men then have sex with the girls, and their lives are tightly controlled. Basically, fundamentalist Mormon women have no freedom. However, despite the radical differences in mainstream culture and fundamentalist Mormon culture, the Mormon way of life would be okay if these women were freely choosing to be plural wives. However, this is not the case in many instances. Krakauer tells the story of several women who have managed to escape the fundamentalist communities they were once a part of, and their testimonies are disturbing, tragic, and enraging.

Krakauer put a monumental amount of research into the book. There are footnotes on at least half the pages of the book that cite other sources or provide further information on some of the things discussed. He did hundreds of interviews with a plethora of people – mainstream Mormons, fundamentalist Mormon males and females, former Mormons, excommunicated Mormons, media people, and many others. He also traveled to several of the fundamentalist Mormon communities and interviewed people there. Most importantly, Krakauer interviewed both Dan and Ron Lafferty, who are currently serving life sentences in prison for the murders described in the book.

Only in the brief prologue is Krakauer himself present in the narrative voice. Aside from that, the text is written in third-person perspective, in which Krakauer is not a character in the story. However, despite the non-presence of a personalized narrator, Krakauer’s narrative is not objective. Of course he chooses to focus his narrative on the negative aspects of Mormonism, its troubled past, and its history of and continuation of sexual violence. But it should be noted that Krakauer doesn’t have to try very hard to make an indictment of fundamentalist Mormonism sound convincing – the Mormons make it easy. Much of the book’s content is startlingly disturbing, and there is little room for defense of such heinous fundamentalist Mormon practices.

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