From Publishers Weekly
In 1857, in a field in southern Utah, a party of Mormons and Native Americans slaughtered more than a hundred men, women and children who were traveling to California. Only one man was ever tried, and executed, for the horror that became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre John D. Lee. This well-told novel by Freeman (The Chinchilla Farm) presents Lee's story from the point of view of three of his 19 wives: Emma, his "English bride," who recognizes that the man she loves is made up of equal parts tenderness and savagery; Ann, a child-bride of 13, who is hardened and wise beyond her years; and Rachel, the faithful, older wife, who remains devoted to Lee even after his excommunication and eventual execution. Freeman's novel is well researched (drawing heavily upon the work of historian Juanita Brooks), and her nuanced, perceptive portrayal of Mormon life stands in stark contrast to other Mormon-themed fiction (particularly the recent novels of Brigham Bybee). The book's descriptions are memorable, evoking the bleak but stunning landscape of the region. The motif of the red scenery reflects the raw bloodiness of the massacre, a metaphor that is often brilliant but occasionally overdone ("The very atmosphere of this brute red world seemed impregnated with sorrow and evil, colored by all the innocent blood shed that day"). Rachel's deeply pious character is remote and slightly underdeveloped; her section is the shortest and the last. Overall, Freeman has crafted a novel that is historically faithful, character-driven and deeply poignant. 9-city author tour.
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Unlike most historical novels, this one, which opens with a man's execution, doesn't pander to contemporary values. The condemned is a charismatic Mormon leader who participated in the massacre of a hundred and twenty Gentile pioneers in 1857, and Freeman describes the crime through the reactions of three of his nineteen wives. Rachel, the eldest, remains dislikably faithful to his memory. Emma, however, comes to see her husband as self-serving, and his youngest wife, Ann, who married him at the age of thirteen, becomes Emma's unlikely emancipator. With Ann's story—that of a young woman living in the Utah wilderness with a profound sense of her own worth—the narrative soars. Readers may want to shrug off all that makes these devout women endure their existence of farmwork, housework, repeated pregnancies, jealousies, and little to call their own, but Freeman's novel makes astute points about the almost indistinguishable similarities between faith and love.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker