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Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer

July 15, 2012

I read Krakauer’s Into the Wild and loved the story, but didn’t really love Krakauer’s style. I thought he went on some unnecessary tangents and labored some points a little too much (and by “a little,” I mean to death). I felt much the same about Under the Banner of Heaven – the story was fascinating, but Krakauer belabored pieces of the story and took some detours that I think took away from the book as a whole. But that said, I loved the story.

Krakauer sets out to explore how two Mormon fundamentalist brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, came to kill their sister-in-law and her baby daughter. He starts with the crime, but then goes back to the roots of Mormonism, telling the story of how Joseph Smith came to found the religion and tracking the church’s history and travels across the US.

I knew a bit about Mormonism (my aunt once lived down the road from Joseph Smith’s birthplace in VT), but I didn’t know the details – Joseph Smith’s history of fraud, the loss of the tablets Smith “received from God,”  the  criminal activity of the church, and the controversy surrounding the polygamy revelation. Krakauer does an incredibly thorough job of retelling the religion’s roots and it’s fascinating to read (with the exception of a few looooooong tangents, but that is my one Krakauer complaint).

Krakauer’s retelling of Dan and Ron Lafferty’s crime is possibly even more interesting. My dad likes to read true crime and I got into it for a while too. It’s so interesting to see the scene unfold, look inside the heads of those involved, see the evidence and the timeline, and witness the trial. Krakauer does a great job of recounting not only the crime itself, but the history of the Lafferty family, the relationship between the brothers, their journeys together, and finally the resolution of the trial. I felt like I understood the brothers’ point of view (however bizarre) and could connect the dots on how the crime could have happened.

I really enjoyed Under the Banner of Heaven and I think that it gave me a new understanding of the religion, how fundamentalism differs from mainstream Mormonism, and how religion can become, as Krakauer subtitled the book, a “violent faith.”

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