Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Posted 28 November, 2014 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 21 Comments


Under the banner of heavenTitleUnder the Banner of Heaven
Author: Jon Krakauer
Published: 2003; Pages: 365
Genre: Nonfiction/Religious History
Rating: Holy Freakin Cow

On Amazon | On Indiebound | On Goodreads | On Audible

In Short: A look at some of the extreme Fundamentalist Mormon sects and the early history of the Mormon church

Why I Read Under the Banner of Heaven: I was first aware of this one after reading and loving Into Thin Air and Into the Wild.

Thoughts in General: Again, Holy Freakin Cow. Under the Banner of Heaven is centered around the 1984 vicious murder of a woman and her 15 month old baby in the outskirts of Provo, Utah. Two of her brothers-in-law, who were incredibly upset at her resistance to their (and her husband’s) Fundamentalist Mormon beliefs, felt impressed by God to slay her and the babe.

From there, Krakauer dives into the early history of the Mormon faith, especially the principle of polygamy that was practiced by the early leaders of the religion (officially until 1890). After the Mormon church banned the practice of polygamy, many groups splintered and even today there remain many groups who still subscribe to the principle of plural wives. Krakauer explores these groups as well as some of the famous cases in recent history (eg Elizabeth Smart’s abduction)

Now let’s back up a bit and talk a little Trish History. Six months before the Lafferty murder, my parents and I moved from closeby outskirts of Provo to Toronto. This murder basically happened in my former backyard. I also grew up in the Mormon church, though I have been inactive for over 15 years. I attended one year of college at BYU-Idaho and have read The Book of Mormon. While I don’t practice anymore (any religion), I still have a lot of respect for the church and anyone who can have such an amazing amount of faith.

To say that reading this book was a fascinating read is a huge understatement coming from my point of view.

To top all of that off, I recently learned that my great-great grandfather took a plural wife. And while reading Under the Banner of Heaven, I realized that one of the most bloody massacres in Utahn history (Mountain Meadows Massacre) happened just outside of where my gg-grandmother was living as a child. Her parents surely would have known about these goings-ons.

Fascinating. Horrifying. This book–I couldn’t put it down.

When I was younger, and still a practicing member of the church, people would always ask me if my dad had more than one wife. Duh–they don’t do that anymore! It was such an inane question and it always irritated me. But what really irritates me is how the church history that I was taught as a young adult was really only a piece of the story.

I was always fascinated by the church history and the prophets of the church. I read a lot and was pretty knowledgeable. And yet. I think it was just a few weeks ago that the church finally confirmed that Joseph Smith was a polygamist with up to forty wives.

Under the Banner of Heaven is fascinating. And horrifying. For sure. And I recognize that it is one side of the history–just as the side that I was taught growing up was another side. And I don’t think there are simply two sides to the story. History is like that–complicated and complex.

A few more things to end up this terribly personal look at my thoughts on this book. It was a touch long–I started skimming near the end. It doesn’t paint the Mormon church in the best lighting (even given that the mainstream Mormon church is absolutely separate and in no way affiliated with the fundamentalist sects). And since this is a continuing history, it is 11 years out of date (eg Warren Jeffs, who is discussed in the book as being the next fundamentalist prophet, is now in prison serving for all sorts of charges).

Bottom Line: I absolutely recommend Under the Banner of Heaven. I couldn’t put it down. I loaned it to my dad a few years ago (obviously before reading it) and I didn’t realize at the time how much of the church history was included. Now I’m loaning it to him again so we can discuss it. Because I have all the questions. And reading this book has made me eager to seek out other sides of the stories told.

Maybe it’s mostly due to personal reasons, but wow–this book.

Have you read Under the Banner of Heaven?


21 Responses to “Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer”

  1. Wow – this must have been a really powerful book for you given your history. I will join in and say that it was also a really powerful book for me without any history (or really any exposure whatsoever) to Mormons and/or the Mormon church. I don’t think you have to have any background with this stuff to be fascinated by the book.

  2. I love the book. It would be even better with your geographical history. I think I told you about The Witness Wore Red which is the memoir of a former FLDS wife who got away and then worked with the government on the raids that helped capture Warren Jeffs. It is a good book to read to get updated on the issue.

  3. This book pretty much blew me away, too. I had no connection to the church, and it was actually the first time I learned the history of it.

    Have you read any Terry Tempest Williams? She doesn’t really explore the Mormon faith, but was raised in it and touches on it a bit in her books. I think you’d really like When Women Were Birds.

  4. I’ve been waiting to see what you had to say about this one. I knew some of your personal history but didn’t know you’d lived near Provo so close to the time of the Lafferty murder.

    Yes – both The Hubster and I have read it years ago. Fascinating and horrifying is pretty much what we thought about it too.

  5. I was totally appalled by the book, which is to say, by way of clarification, that I was fascinated an thought it was an excellent book but was appalled by what happened. But it’s very interesting to follow up on what happened to the Lafferty brothers since. There are a bunch of really interesting articles on the legal issues raised by their case of “insanity” versus “freedom of religion.” Then there is a recent article that gives an idea of their current mental state: http://www.cityweekly.net/utah/blood-brothers/Content?oid=2469422

  6. My husband grew up Mormon, but like you isn’t anymore. He does have family that still are and live in Utah, so this book interests me too!

  7. I have read quite a few books about polygamy in some fundamentalist Mormon sects but some of those books have been too “taking advantage of the practice”, if you know what I mean. But I love Jon Krakauer and for some reason, this one book has not been on my radar – maybe because my library doesn’t have a copy of the audiobook. I’m going to get it on Audible instead.

  8. Wow. This book sounds fantastic! While I am a non-denominational Christian, I have always been intrigued by the Mormon faith. I’ve read books on it, as well as fictional books, so this is right up my area of interest!

    I am blown away how close you were to where the nurses took place. That has to bring a different perspective for you and give the heebie-jeebies! How fascinating that in your family lineage, polygamy was practiced! I’m sure you will have lots of great conversations with your dad and hope you will come back and share some of it. Thanks for sharing!

  9. I really enjoyed this book and got so much out of it. While I’m not Mormon one of my best friends as a child was and then I knew several as I got older. I was always impressed with the level of dedication to their faith they had without it ever seeming like a burden. One thing that this book really helped me understand as a non-Mormon was the difference between these fundamentalist sects and the actual Mormon church. It really was a fascinating read and I can’t imagine how interesting it must have been with your close ties in both location and faith.

  10. Almost 20 years inactive over here (went to BYU in the mid 90s and left the church when I was was kicked out of there — fun times!). I guess every time I read/hear something that reveals yet again how much they keep from you when telling you about church history, even in a college class, well, it just makes me feel like I was duped … so I tend to avoid books like this. I did read Nicole Hardy’s Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin recently because my friend was friends with NH in high school in the next city over and she wanted to know my opinion of the book, knowing some of my religious history. I was just super sad through most of it.

  11. I have a better respect for the Mormon church (LDS) after living in Utah for a few years. My parents have now lived there for 14 years for jobs. We are not Mormon. I learned so much more about the religion living there though. Clearly it is very religious in Utah. My mom read this book and loved it too. She loves all his books. I got to tour the temple in Ogden a couple months ago before it was blessed. Such a beautiful building.

  12. No I haven’t read but Wow now I do. I like Jon Krakauer writings. This book is a must for the next library trip.

  13. Yes, I agree–fascinating and horrifying. Not my favorite Krakauer book, though, I have to say . . . But still, the subject matter is very interesting. Actually, when is Krakauer going to write another book?? I demand to know!

  14. I added this to my TBR list after reading The 19th Wife (David Ebershoff) back in 2011. Still haven’t gotten around to reading it, but it sounds fascinating. A lot of my friends have read and recommended it. Not sure why I keep putting it off…

  15. My background is very similar to yours (I have been out of the church for over 10 years now) so I think I would find it compelling as well. I’ve had this book on my TBR list for years, but somehow haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. I have read quite a few books on early church history- if you need some more recommended reading, just send me a message (or poke around my blog)! It would be interesting to discuss them with you in detail if you like…

  16. This definitely looks fascinating! I remember reading Escape by Carolyn Jessop and couldn’t believe what went on inside the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints … and how hard it was to leave. Unbelievable. I’m adding this one to my list!

  17. Michelle Owens

    Oh my. I had no idea this book was about all that. I am so excited to read this now. Church history is so interesting to me. This book is the absolute next book for me to read. I would love to discuss this with you and share my perspective, and hear yours as well. Lets discuss!

    • Yes! Read it Michelle! I would be SO curious to hear what you think. It’s definitely so different from what I learned growing up–though I do know that it is one side of the story. Love you. :)