Title: Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
Author: Jon Krakauer
Genre: Literary Journalism
Pages: 369 (paperback)
Two Sentence Summary: From the front of the book — “On July 24, 1984, a woman and her infant daughter were murdered by two brothers who believed they were ordered to kill by God. The roots of their crime lie deep in the history of an American religion practiced by millions…”
Two Sentence Review: This is a thought-provoking and disturbing book that I’m glad I read, but I can’t imagine that it would be for everyone. Read on to see if it might be for you.
Long Summary: On July 24, 1984, brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty broke into the home of their brother, Allen Lafferty, and murdered his wife and infant daughter. After being caught, both brothers maintained that they were justified in the killing because they’d received commandment from God to commit the murder.
In order to try and explain this otherwise inexplicable crime, Krakauer explores the history of Mormonism and the branch off of Mormon Fundamentalism in the United States, starting all the way back with Joseph Smith and the founding of the religion and following it’s often violent roots to the present.
Long Review: I put off reviewing this book for a long time because I’m still so conflicted about what I thought. And in fact, I don’t know that this review is going to do much to explain that further because I’m having a hard time separating my feelings about the book and my feelings about organized religion more generally.
I have to admit right away that I’m not especially religious, and get particularly suspicious of whenever someone suggests that some higher power made them do something that in all other ways seem inexplicable. This book didn’t do anything to relieve that suspicion.
The history of Mormon Fundamentalism, as Krakauer presents it, is pretty darn strange. And it’s really quite frightening the way that people have clung to a religion that so young and, in many ways, dependent on personal messages from God that have frequently been misused. To be fair, I haven’t read a lot of books on the history of various religions, and I suppose if I did I’d find them equally as strange.
In any case, this book is very interesting, but in the end left me with more questions than answers. Not because Krakauer isn’t a good journalist — the book is long and full of a million details — but because the story seems so unbelievable to me that I honestly don’t think Krakauer could have made this up if he tried. I have so many questions about how what’s presented in this book can even be possible. I really try to be open-minded, but the whole structure and ideas that govern fundamentalist Mormons (not more mainstream Mormons, just the fundamentalists) creep me out.
Anyway, I feel like I could go on and on about this and never really get anywhere. I’ll just move on to the questions I got for this book as part of Weekly Geeks #22, and then try to answer other questions in the comments since this review isn’t getting anywhere.
Eva (A Striped Armchair) asked: I usually avoid true crime books, because I find it voyeuristic. Was ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ like that?
If someone asked me to tell them the genre of Under the Banner of Heaven, I don’t think I would have told them true crime, although now that you suggest it I can see why the book might fit into that category. However, I still don’t see the book at voyeuristic because I didn’t feel like Krakauer focused on the grisly details of the murder more than he needed too.
That’s not to say that the book is easy to read or not violent — it certainly is violent. I mean, the subtitle is “A Story of Violent Faith,” which gives some indication that violence is part of the story. But I didn’t think that Krakauer went out of his way to sensationalize any of the violence to make it more grisly. Frankly, some of the stuff that happened is pretty graphic all on its own.
Care (Care’s Online Book Club) asked: I’ve heard John Krakauer throws too many big words in his books – did you find it pretentious? (smirk)
Funny question! I didn’t find the book pretentious, but maybe that’s because I’m a little bit of a snob myself 🙂
Seriously though, I think Krakauer can sound pretentious when he’s talking about himself or writing something personal or using the first person voice (there is an appendix at the end where he uses “I” a lot that has some big words). But for most of this book, Krakauer let’s the characters and books speak for themselves. There isn’t really space for him to sound pretentious, I guess 🙂
Uncertainprinciples asked: Have you read much else of John Krakauer? If yes, how does ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ compare?
Yes, I have read Into the Wild, which is Krakauer’s book about a young man who abandons his family and most of civilization to live out in the wilderness of Alaska. I think I liked Into the Wild better, just because it’s a little more personal and a little less political.
I think both stories center on a seemingly incomprehensible action, then try to figure out what makes someone act the way they do. Into the Wild does this a little better because it focuses on a single person and his story, while Under the Banner of Heaven ends up having to look at the entirety of Mormon history to try and understand the murder. And because it’s religion, the story seems to get political and you lose some of that focus.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!