Under the Banner of Heaven

By Jon Krakauer

This book makes a lot of big promises, but it suffers from several serious flaws:

1. Lack of focus.
2. Too long.
3. Preposterous claim.
4. Boring

This is a true crime novel–maybe–set against the history of the Mormon Church–but not really–trying to tie in a couple of murders committed by a couple of sickos–all too common–into an historical and political climate of post-terrorist, millennial religious revival–unsuccessfully.

For true crime, it’s shockingly dull, and the crime is committed by the middle of the book, but you already know it’s going to happen because it’s committed in the prologue, too. The characters aren’t interesting, their motivations are the ordinary motivations of religious sickos, and the detail is presented tediously.

The Mormon Church is presented as entirely to blame for the murderers’ thoughts and the victims, and for Elizabeth Smart’s abduction and captivity. It’s crammed full of historical detail that might be interesting but it’s presented in such a snide, disrespectful tone that it’s just a rip on the Church. At one point the author grudgingly admits that Mormonism is no stranger or objectively odd than any other religion (once you get right down to it) but he nonetheless mocks it and its adherents. He continually harps on its sexism, as if every other religion in the Western World were a paragon of equality and political fairness. Odder still is the fact that his murderers and enablers aren’t even Mormon. They invented a religion based on Mormonism, but it’s taken to such an extreme that the Mormon Church has disassociated itself with them and is cited frequently by the author as denying that what these guys practice is the same religion.

I made it to page 175 where the murders happened, and then the book jumped to another overly detailed of the history of Joseph Smith and friends and I was only halfway through the book. I guess the rest of it is how the Mormons got to Utah and the court case, but considering everyone knew who committed the murder–they’d told maybe ten people they were going to do it and they confessed immediately and you knew this already from the book–there was no suspense about that. The psychological profile of a religious killer is known already. I can’t imagine what you would need to keep writing about.

There are also too many footnotes, on diverse and vaguely interesting tidbits, some of them half a page long. It adds to the lack of focus. It’s just a scrambled book about a tragedy.

Everything seems to be coming up polygamy of late, down to the HBO series, Big Love. So perhaps this was shocking and provocative and informative a few years ago, but the fundamentalist polygamist sects are very much in the public consciousness now and this book doesn’t give any new information. What I found most interesting were the similarities to some of the characters in that television show to some of the fundamentalist profiles in the book. None of them were similar to the point of being “inspired by,” I don’t think, but things like the Romanian immigrant becoming a plural wife reminded me of Ana, and the daughters of prophets all over the place reminded me of Nikki, and the Mormon wives of Mormon men who adopt polygamy reminded me of Barb. Of course, this is in circumstance only. Bill Paxton’s family makes me wish I had a sister wife sometimes. I’d certainly get a lot more done.

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