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A Painful Visit to the Past

In her new novel, Judith Freeman explores a brutal episode involving the Mormon Church, from which she drifted away years ago.

January 22, 2002|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Red Water," Judith Freeman's latest novel, is nothing less than the story of a haunting--families, meadows, an entire religious community haunted by a massacre. Questions about faith, fundamentalism, passion, perseverance, humility and justice sneak up out of the southwestern landscape and from the smallest movements of the characters.

In 1857, a wagon train of migrants from Arkansas crossed Utah. Gentiles, as they were called by the Mormons whose territory they were crossing. They were carrying more than 1,000 head of cattle to market in Northern California, as well as horses, clothes, gold, jewelry and many supplies. The Mormons were not a happy people at the time, almost at war with the government: Joseph Smith, the prophet, or head, of the Mormon Church, had been murdered in 1844 after announcing his candidacy for president, and an apostle of the church, Parley P. Pratt, had been murdered in Arkansas. At the same time, the Mormon community had been steadily expanding its territory from Missouri into Idaho and Utah.

John D. Lee, a prominent and wealthy Mormon, had been charged by the church to create a settlement in southern Utah and to develop a relationship with the Indians there. Because of his influence with the local tribes, he was able to order the Indians to attack the wagon train first. The Gentiles retreated. A few days later, Lee rode into their camp waving a white flag. He ordered the women and children to leave the wagons first, and then the men. He assured them that the men would be escorted to safety by a Mormon man. Instead, they were shot or clubbed to death. More than 120 people, a majority of them women and children, died. The murders were blamed on the Indians, and the massacre was later dismissed as the work of a renegade group of Mormons. John Lee was executed in 1877 for his role, but the church never took responsibility. While the story is barely acknowledged in Mormon history, it remains a source of shame and division within the church that persists to this day, especially for the descendants of the participants.

She Married at 17,

Divorced at 21

Freeman was born in 1946 in Ogden, Utah, and was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon Church is officially known. She married at 17, had a son at 19, and divorced at 21. As a single mother, educating herself by reading Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf, among others, she drifted from the church, from which she remains estranged. Still, most of her writing is about the Mormons. "I never kid myself about the fact that my background always informs the way I look at the world," she wrote in a recent essay, "and how I write about it."

"Red Water" follows her three previous novels, "The Chinchilla Farm" (1989), "Set For Life" (1991), "A Desert of Pure Feeling" (1996), as well as "Family Attractions," a collection of short stories (1988). But "Red Water" differs greatly from Freeman's other work in that it is set in the past and based on historical events. The voices she uses--three of Lee's 19 wives, Emma, Anna and Rachel--are of real women. Freeman relies on their diaries, as well as John Lee's, on research and her own imagination.

Freeman, whose novel will be released this month, looks a lot like the musician Laurie Anderson; she has that same impish smile, short hair, round face and eyes. She has a deep, sudden laugh but still seems serious. Thoughts are weighed carefully, but she appears comfortable not knowing all the answers. Like any good writer with a national reputation, she does not want to be pigeonholed as Mormon or western but wonders why so many people come to the West, write books as if they understand the region and then get national acclaim. Freeman was handed the truth as a child, tore it up as a young adult and is making her own version right now.

"Red Water" challenged whatever faith she had left in her religious upbringing; yet she says she got a few answers and a lot of peace from the writing of it. This is evident in her demeanor and her calm, quiet voice as, dressed all in black, she sits down for a Japanese meal in downtown Los Angeles. She talks in a voice that is full of emotion and yet measured, speaking with a combination of reverence, relief and amazement.

"Red Water" did not come easily. In 1996, Freeman came across a book by Juanita Brooks, a Mormon and a self-taught historian, called "The Mountain Meadow Massacre," written in the 1950s. "I knew, growing up, that the Mormons had done something terrible, unspeakable, involving such treachery that it could not be talked about. I knew vaguely that it was blamed on the Indians," Freeman says.

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