On The Page: Under The Banner of Heaven

In early May, High Country News published a piece on the polygamous Mormon community of Short Creek. This reminded me of Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner of Heaven. I’d read this book a long time ago, back in college. I didn’t remember a whole lot about it and I’d learned much more about the history of the West, traveled through Mormon Country, and generally figured I was in a better place to absorb the book.

I wasn’t wrong. Getting deeper into Under The Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith was a lot easier for me now that I could picture the country on the Utah-Arizona border where Short Creek’s FLDS community is located. I’ve also read more about other exploration of the west. For example Krakauer suggests that perhaps Mormons who had been involved with the Mountain Meadows Massacre may have been involved with the killing of William Dunn and the Howland brothers who abandoned John Wesley Powell before they descended Separation Canyon (historians have long believed it was the Shivwits Band of Payutes who killed the explorers).

Also fascinating is the revisionist history of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) Church, more commonly known as the Mormons. I honestly found this uneasy relationship between fundamentalist Saints and the mainstream branch of the religion more fascinating than the central narrative of Ron and Dan Lafferty’s crimes.

Ron and Dan struck me as “typical” religious nuts of any stripe. Killing their sister-in-law, Brenda, and her daughter because God told them to was just the culmination of a descent into increasing extremism. Brenda had stood up to Ron and Dan as they attempted to rope her husband Allen into their delusions.

I devoured this book on my trip down to Oklahoma City. Despite being really tired (definitely recovering from the end of the school year!) I was pretty happy to find a quiet spot and do some reading. Like all good books, this one lengthened my reading list but I learned a lot about how pieces of western history fit together.

On The Page: Beyond The Hundredth Meridian

Almost a year and a half ago, I was helping a friend in Ridgway clean out some old buildings he’d purchased and there were stacks of books. Most were romance novels and old stuff but some were things that had been on my “to read” list for a long time: Wilderness And The American Mind, A People’s History of The United Statesand Beyond The Hundredth Meridian.

Since most of my traveling is in the American Southwest and the mountain states, I’ve been meaning to read Beyond The Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the American West by Wallace Stegner for a really long time. (In fact, I hadn’t read any Stegner at all and that was also starting to feel a little bit wrong.) When I headed to Mexico over Spring Break, this is the book I tossed into my pack. The paperback was a little bit beat up which made it a perfect choice for backpacking—it proved to be even better when my hiking partner forgot a book and we took a knife to the spine to split it into shared reading. The photo below is from a first edition, not of my paperback but it was prettier.

I’ve been putting off writing a review for a long time because there isn’t a whole lot to say beyond read this bookBeyond the Hundredth Meridian is about more than exploring the West and delves into how Powell became a driver of government funded science, an admirable bureaucrat, and most importantly, a man of vision about the future of the West in the face of increasing water pressures.

In addition to the fascinating information, I fell in love with Stegner’s writing. I was not only absorbing facts and dates about Powell’s impact on exploration, geology, the USGS topographical map project, grazing policy, the attempts to master plan dams and reservoirs, and more but I was honestly entertained. I wanted to just keep reading—and honestly, I’m buying another non-destroyed copy to read again.

There may be a million books out there to read but this one is something that shouldn’t be skipped. It’s a classic for good reason, toss it in your bag for your next great Western road trip!