Red Water: A Novel
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2003
This is great writing. I was completely taken in by just about everything about this book. I found the characters complex, the scenery beautiful, the language believable. The women were all interesting to me, and I didn't find anywhere that my interest lagged. I even found myself seeing John D. Lee as human for the first time, something even his memoirs were unable to accomplish. I don't know much about the theology or morality of the 19th century Mormon church, so I can't really say whether it was accurate in that regard or not, although I found it believable. I do, however, know a great deal about Mountain Meadows, having read just about everything published about it, including much of the apologist garbage that passes for history written by defenders. I can tell you that I found nothing she wrote about the massacre with which I disagreed, right down to "putting the saddle on the right horse." Brigham Young was directly responsible for ordering the massacre, and John D. Lee was just following orders, although that makes him no less a murderer in my eyes. It is no better defense here than it was at Nuremberg or Mai Lai.

I do confess a bias, however, although different from that of others. I first "met" Captain Alexander Fancher, leader of the Fancher party murdered at the meadows, as I was researching his brother, my great grandfather John Fancher. I found them and their families side by side in the 1850 census of San Diego, California. They had apparently come out together to try their hand at cattle raising and were headed for Tulare county in central California. There I saw a listing of Captain Fancher and his entire family, wife Eliza (whose blood stained dress Emma was wearing in the scene of her great humiliation), age 28, son Hampton, age 12, William age 10, Mary, age 9, Thomas, age 7, Martha, age 4, and lastly the twins, both 1 and a half, Sarah and Margaret, for whom my mother was named. All of these people would be murdered at Mountain Meadows by John D. Lee and those he led and followed. Even the twins, a mere 8 years old at the time of the massacre, did not survive. Only Kit Carson Fancher and Traphina (Emma's apparent accusor in the dress scene) survived, both born after 1850. Alexander and family had returned to Arkansas to collect family and friends to bring out to the California paradise and were headed to meet his brother when they met their fate. His brother John, with whom Captain Fancher was very close, didn't know of his brother's fate for some time after the massacre, and didn't know the truth until many years later.

So you see, it takes quite a gifted writer to humanize someone like John Doyle Lee in my eyes. I even found him sympathetic at times. Freeman has found a way to zero in on one of the great mysteries of the Mountain Meadows Massacre: how otherwise decent men, who love and are loved, could find it in their hearts to commit such a slaughter of innocents. This is by far the best fictional account of the massacre and its aftermath that I have ever read.

For those who are interested in finding out more about the massacre, I highly recommend The Mountain Meadows Massacre, by Juanita Brooks, and even more highly, Blood of the Prophets:Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, by Will Bagley.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2004
Wow, I read a few of these reviews. Funny how whenever you write something that even touches the edge of religion, the zealots come out.
This is NOT a story about the Mountain Meadow Massacre, though the incident and its characters figure prominently. This is NOT a story about merits or evils of Mormonism, though most of the characters are mormon and deal with their beliefs. Instead Freeman forces us to look at how humans have to come to grips with the complexities of belief and the realities of harsh everyday life.
This is a story centered around a fictionalization of part of the life of John D Lee. Executed for his role in the massacre. But even more than that, it is centrally, a story about women, and how they love.
Emma, the devoted wife who was in love with Lee when he took her as his 8th (well 17th) wife. How she dealt with the love and desire for a man she could not possess for herself but who totally possessed her. How she was bound more to the land and the religion by the man than the other way around.
Ann, who at thirteen married Lee for complex reasons but in the end, was taken by his personality and her own curiosity, shall we say. But who was tormented more by the man whom she lost belief in and the religion she never believed in but was wary of. Lee's memory amd her mixed feelings for him dogged her life even when she had left. Moreso, maybe.
Rachel, who in the end, realized that she was devoted to Lee for what he could promise her in the next life. An eternity next to the sister she idolized and loved. But Rachel's devotion may appear more as love than the love of the others.
There was a certain fascination in this book for me. It is well done and I literally read it in two days almost straight through. The characters are real and their interactions, relationships and differences are real too. Even down to the point where you wonder what private characterizations one character has for the next is based on truth or an unadmitted jealously.
Each part is told by one of the woman and each part represents their personality and fate. Emma's is rich and boisterous and hopeful. Ann's is meandering, lost, with moments of warmth and richness. Rachel's is cold, empty and barren with promises of hard times even among the good.
This is very well written and very well researched. It is a small insight to what mormonism was under the eye of Smith and Young while it was still a living entity. It is also a beautiful insight to some of the most harsh and spectacular places on earth. Finally it is an insight into how women view love and even men. Maybe in the end, that is what I was reading for -- to find a little insight into myself.
If you find it at the yard sale, pick it up, you will read it that night.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on May 21, 2003
I have the privilege of having a long Mormon heritage. My family came west with Brigham Young and were among those sent to Arizona to settle. While this book is based on historical events and people, as Ms. Freeman points out, it is a work of fiction and should be read as such. It is beautifully written. It can invoke such strong emotions. It is not a book about the Mountain Meadows Massacre (undeniably a horrible incident that should never have happened or gone unpunished). It is a book about three very different women who were involved in a polygamous marriage to one of the most strong willed and charismatic men of the time. It is their stories of survive in a harsh place and in harsh times. Whether you agree with the doctrine of the Mormon church of the time is irrelevant. This is a wonderfully written book of three women who along with the other Morman women of the time changed the face of the west forever. This book is more than worth your time and effort to read. Just don't read it for history or a religion lesson
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2006
<em>Red Water</em> by Judith Freeman is a work of historical fiction that takes place in the mid-19th century western US. Welcome to Mormon country. Freeman's novel fleshes out the true story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which a wagon train party of 120 men, women, and children were slaughtered by a group of Mormons (and possibly some American Indians). The novel is ostensibly about the man who was eventually held responsible for the murders, John D Lee, but told from the perspective of three of his wives (Emma, Ann, and Rachel). It's one of those stories from US history that's disturbing, fascinating, and terribly intriguing. Freeman deftly weaves hints of it throughout the novel, delighting less in shocking her audience and more in subtly conveying the horrors of it. For example, there's a scene in which Emma wears a beautiful dress that John gave her to a big Mormon festival. She is soon ostracized for flaunting such ill-gotten gains as the dress came from one of the women killed in the Massacre. This forces Emma to confront her feelings about her husband's involvement. It also brings up another juicy part of the story: were those that participated in the Massacre just following orders (from higher-ups in the Mormon hierarchy who believed in blood atonement, like Brigham Young), were they motivated by greed (for the wagon trainers were quite wealthy), or both? While the story is superficially about the Massacre and its startling effects on Mormon society, the novel is really about the wives. When each wife contemplates the Massacre and John's involvement, she discovers the true nature of her love and faith. I plowed through this book, enthralled by the relationships between the wives and with their husband. Polygamy is a lot like the Massacre to me: fascinating and horrifying. Freeman doesn't mince words and the passages about sexuality are some of the best. My only complaint is that I found myself skimming through the parts about the surrounding landscape. While Freeman admirably employs subtlety elsewhere in the novel, her blatant attempts to make The Land another character are too obvious. The metaphor is easy but she spells it out for the reader time and time again: the cruel, stark land is awash in red. You know, red like blood? Like the blood that flowed at the Massacre? Get it? Aside from that though, I recommend it. The three wives are so different. Everyone's favorite has to be Ann, the independent and tough child bride (13 when married to the middle-aged Lee). Her story is the most exciting but only in contrast to the other two. The three stories together combine to create a nuanced portrait of John D Lee and 19th century Mormonism.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 2002
I know this is fiction and Freeman says at the end of the book : "this book is a work of the imagination" and she cautions readers NOT to read it as a version of history.
Veiled in its secret ceremonies and rituals, Mormonism is always going to be looked at suspiciously. Surely their leaders must know this and figure it is the price they must pay.
That said, I am astounded that any church ever allowed any man to have 19 wives. That is just inexplicable but the patriarchal Mormon religion did allow this horror to exist. "Red Water" allows us to look inside a Mormon marriage with eight "present wives" and see what their lives were like. I am fairly sure that this is historically accurate. This community of females are the main core of the book and we come to know three of them very well. John Lee is seen only through their eyes and in most instances he is portrayed as a selfish and controlling man. This has nothing to do with the massacre, but with him as a human being.
(The massacre, in fact, occupies few pages of "Red Water" since it occurred prior to the beginning of the book.)
I thought that Freeman did terrific research and found it interesting the way she told the women's stories. Emma's story was very personal and done in the first person. Ann's story was shorter and told in the third person. Rachel's story was the shortest and was related via diary entries. Because her story was longer and more detailed, I felt that I got to know Emma the best.
The struggles and hardships endured by these early settlers of the West were incredibly difficult and often life-threatening. Lack of food, education,medical care, and the basics of life became the norm that was part of their daily travail. The harsh landscape, which is often their worst enemy, becomes almost another character.
While it is historically true that John Lee was the scapegoat for all who did the killing at the Mountain Meadow Massacre, I wonder what part Brigham Young had in this--did he really betray Lee? Was Lee so blinded by his faith that he remained silent after being arrested, rather than implicate other Mormons?
I plan to try to find some more answers. This book gave me a lot of food for thought.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2003
I had this book on the shelf for many months before picking it up to read and I wish I'd picked it up sooner. It is the story of John D. Lee, a Mormon pioneer and leader in the 19th century, and his alleged involvement (and ultimate execution) in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. As I live in northern Arizona, I have met polygamous families and always been fascinated by their lifestyles, but I never knew anything about this event until now. Most interestingly, the story is told from the perspective of three of his nineteen wives. All had different stories (I liked Emma's the best) and perspectives of his involvement and of the Mormon lifestyle in general (at that time). It is obviously a novel, but based upon factual events and thoroughly researched history. I hesitated to read it at first as a Mormon friend of mine thought that the fictional tone of the story took away from the importance of the true facts, but it didn't. This book just whet my appetite to learn more about this period in time, the people who lived it and the tragic massacre that took place on Sept. 11, 1857. I can't wait to read more book about this time in western U.S. history.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Being somewhat of an old west buff and having visited the meadow mountain monument a few years ago I bought this book expecting it to be a story of the events surrounding the massacre. I was pleasantly surprised that the story had much more depth than that.

The story covers the twenty year interim between the actual event and the execution of John D. Lee the only member of the "Danites" to be tried and convicted in the massacre, told from the viewpoint of three of his nineteen wives. The book closes with the follow-up of these three womens lives after the execution of Lee.

Judith Freeman has woven together a well told story that is more about the human soul than about a historical event. She has portrayed the probable feelings of these three women with an insight that is rarely seen in writings today. From the way that these three women likely viewed and dealt with such things as polygamy and Mormonism to their reaction when they discovered that their husband was implicated in and hunted down for heinous crimes he had committed before they knew him and how one of them stood by him through it all it makes a spellbinding read.

Freeman is able to adjust her viewpoint and shows the ability to get inside the mind of and to feel and become the character. I couldn't put this one down until I was too tired to read each night and then I would pick it up the next day and become just as engrossed in it as I had been the day before.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2002
I just finished this novel. I think Judith Freeman deserves a special award for writing this story. The research alone must have taken years. But what a remarkable end result. She writes of the Utah landscape with precision and awe. Her characters are readily believable and she has painted a supremely fair account of 19th Century Mormon Utah. I am not a historian, but I trust her detail to fact is accurate and unbiased. Anyone concerned with women's issues, religious literature and Western U.S. history will appreciate this fine piece of writing.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2003
Judith Freeman's book is obviously fictitious and she makes sure readers are aware the book is fiction. Recent news reports indicate the LDS church is now examining Ms. Freeman apparently as a precursor to excommunication. What I find extremely interesting in most reviews of LDS-related works, fiction and nonfiction, is the tendency of many reviewers to state that the doctrine described in the work being reviewed is no longer practiced by the "modern day" LDS church. You will find one reviewer who makes this statement in her review of Ms. Freeman's book. I often wonder what force causes people to react defensively and compels them to offer disclaimers. Why can't a book be read and enjoyed without readers having to be reminded by reviewers that what happened long ago could never happen now? Ms. Freeman's book is about basic human values and emotions that are as real today as they were then. Frankly, I am tired of Mormon reviewers who constantly have to remind us their church is different now...they have missed the point of an excellent book.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 11, 2002
Red Water is to Judith Freeman what The Poisonwood Bible is to Barbara Kingsolver. Their other novels are good, but these two are of a significantly higher caliber. Rich in descriptive detail, Red Water draws you into Utah's lonely, hauntingly beautiful landscape and dredges up skeletons furtively hidden in candy-coated closets. This ain't green jello and plastic-smile land; it's about human history. Mormons are no more or less "peculiar" than anyone else. Thus, it's a story about human struggle, ambition, jealousy, fear, oppression, prejudice, greed, perseverance, hope, triumph, love, dreams, faith, suffering, resignation: life.
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