Today’s weather was so beautiful that I sat outside for around four hours, finished three books, and started two more. In all, I’ve finished 16 books so far this month, and I’ll recap some of them for you. One of my nonfiction choices for the month was Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer.
Under the Banner of Heaven contains two parallel through-lines: one, a history of the LDS Church and its various schisms and offshoots, and two, the story of the Ron and Dan Lafferty, two brothers who killed their sister-in-law Brenda and her baby daughter Erica at their home in American Fork, Utah, in 1984, based on a prophecy they received.
This book was eye-opening and hard to put down, even in some of the more boring stretches detailing the lives of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and the like, all of whom lived more than a hundred years before the main events of the book. I preferred the chapters which were about 20th century Mormon life, like the chapters on Debbie Palmer. The author, who is Mormon himself (but not of the FLDS or Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, those who practice polygamy), really gets into the heads of the people involved and the bystanders, painting a vivid picture of the hazy events of that fateful day in 1984. In addition, he not only illuminates the life of Brenda Lafferty, who was much more courageous and wise than her situation allowed her to be, but also the Lafferty brothers, and exactly when and how things took a turn for the dark in their lives, specifically, Dan and Ron. Though what the brothers did was reprehensible and vile, Krakauer bifurcates their stories to show the different paths that led them to that point, and how the brothers changed after the brutal murders. It is interesting to get into the minds of killers, and even though their reasons are bizarre and corrupt, it’s interesting to see everything that those around them ignored. You wonder what might have happened if one of their wives or one of their accomplices had intervened and stopped it from happening – would things have settled down, or could it have possibly led to even more deaths of innocent people? Not to trivialize Brenda and Erica, and the possibilities, or sympathize with the killers, but the fact that these two brothers remained locked away in prison with their bizarre ideas left space for the rest of their family to cope and heal. People have done a lot more without being incarcerated for any significant length of time.
Overall, Under the Banner of Heaven is not for the faint of heart, but if you’re into true crime, religion, or American history, this book should definitely be at the top of your list. There is a quote in the book about the inability to write a fictional book about Mormons because their lives are strange in and of themselves, and this book is proof of that statement.