Jon Krakauer is one of my favorite non-fiction authors. I first read, Into Thin Air about the Mount Everest tragedy, and then I read Into the Wild about Christopher McCandless’ journey into Alaska.
I was excited to read Under the Banner of Heaven, but I was also deeply disturbed by it.
This book has two distinct parts that are interwoven together.
The Lafferty Brothers
One part is about Dan and Ron Lafferty, two brothers who, without remorse, murdered their brother Allen’s young wife, Brenda, and their 15 month old daughter, Erica. They committed this heinous crime because Ron had received a revelation from God that he and Dan were supposed to kill Brenda and Erica, along with two other people.
Dan and Ron are devout, fundamentalist Mormons, and they were angry at Brenda because she kept their brother, Allen, from becoming as radical as they were and because Ron thought that Brenda helped convince his own wife to leave him.
The History of the Mormon Church
The second part of the book is a comprehensive history of the Mormon faith, with a slant toward the violence. I have limited exposure to Mormons. For a few years, our neighbors in our three flat were Mormons. Both families were religious but nice. They were not out of the ordinary.
Krakauer explains how the Mormon faith began and then also explains how the faith was eventually divided between the fundamentalists who believe in plural marriage and the other Mormons who do not believe in that. What I was not expecting was just how violent some members of the Mormon church were in the 1800s.
Krakauer weaves the two stories together, making the ultimate implied assumption that the Lafferty brothers’ violence was not unexpected considering the history of the Mormon faith and the fundamentalists the brothers admired.
Are All Religious People Insane?
Where the book gets particularly sticky is when the lawyers try to argue that Ron Lafferty is insane. As I read the book, he certainly sounded insane to me. After all, he decides to murder his sister-in-law and her baby because he received a revelation from God? The God I know and love would never dictate that someone kill two innocent family members.
Ron exhibits a number of actions and behaviors that make him look insane, but some lawyers do not want to label him this way. Many of us who are religious say that we look for signs from God or that we feel we have guardian angels protecting us. Are we, too, insane? What we are saying is irrational. Faith in itself is irrational.
The lawyers feel that by arguing that Ron Lafferty is insane, they’ll create a precedence that any religious zealot could commit atrocious acts and claim insanity.
Under the Banner of Heaven was a deeply disturbing book about the murders of a mother and her infant daughter as well as the history of the Mormon church. This book is not for the faint of heart.
One minor drawback to the book is that I wish the author would have included pictures of some of the key players in the history of the Mormon church as well as the Lafferty brothers and Brenda and Erica.
I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5 on the Mom’s Plans’ scale.