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Return to the Scene of a Crime

RED WATER: A Novel, By Judith Freeman, Pantheon Books: 336 pp., $24

January 27, 2002|JANET FITCH

It must be every bride's nightmare--going home to meet your new husband's seven other wives. But in Judith Freeman's fourth novel, "Red Water," set in the Mormon West of the 1850s and '60s, it's only to be expected. Emma Batchelor, English emigre and convert, marries the charismatic John D. Lee, a real-life leader in the early church, and moves to a remote settlement in the red lands of the Great Basin in this tale of the sweat- and blood-soaked West.

Moving fluidly backward and forward in time, the novel opens in an especially solemn and graceful piece of writing with Lee's execution by firing squad for a crime that is never directly addressed. His mysterious crime hangs over the rising action like the threat of a winter storm.

The rest of the novel is divided into three sections, each narrated by one of Lee's wives, all historic personages who left diaries and writings for Freeman to mine: Emma, whose marriage taps deep reserves of strength, resourcefulness and faith; child bride Ann, who prefers mountains and animals to the charms of domestic life; and Rachel, a bitter, self-righteous woman who delivers the harshest portion of the novel.

"Red Water" gives us a fascinating view of plural marriage on the frontier, where "for better or for worse" certainly provided both extremes. As well, it provides a fascinating look into Mormonism's unique beliefs and practices and a thumbnail history of the church's early days, embodied in the man, Lee. Called "Father" by his wives, he personifies the red lands that are the backdrop to the novel. Oversized and dangerously unpredictable, he is capable in leadership, swathed in charm, steeped in avarice, bubbling with sexuality, stalwart in faith and violent to his fingertips.

The first clue to the mystery of Lee's crimes comes when, wondering at the size of Father's herds, new bride Emma is told he acquired the animals after the "Indian Depredation," in which a wagon train from Arkansas was brutally attacked by Indians at a place called Mountain Meadow. Luckily, Father and other Saints (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mormonism's name for itself) saved some of the children and industriously collected the animals that escaped the slaughter. However, she is warned not to inquire further.

Gradually, the more sinister involvement of the Saints is revealed: The Indians weren't all Indians, many were Mormon men. And when, after three days of siege, the Arkansans were persuaded by the Saints to surrender in exchange for safe escort out of Mormon territory, they were slaughtered, shot or clubbed to death by their "saviors," who helped themselves to the spoils.

"Red Water" is a brave book for Freeman, who was raised a Mormon, as the church hierarchy has long denied responsibility for this chapter in its history. To her credit, Freeman never divorces the violence of that event from the violence and persecution against Mormons in the church's early days or from the intrinsic violence of life on the land, with its brutal climate and inhuman demands on its settlers. She helps us understand the mind-set of a besieged nation and the more subtle politics of a theocratic society.

Yet the power of the book is muted somewhat by its split focus: the human story of the frontier polygamous family versus the moral story, the blood guilt of the Mountain Meadows massacre.

The story of the massacre's aftermath disrupts the rich unfolding action of the intra-familial drama. An eyewitness report among the voices narrating the book could have knit it more closely into the family story. Then Emma's dilemma--whether she can still love Lee and her church in the face of growing knowledge of his murderousness and its complicity--would have been heightened and the two story lines better integrated. (Although Ann in the third section is revealed to have had certain firsthand knowledge of the event, it arrives too late in the tale to heighten the drama of Emma's decision.)

The drama of the polygamous family, with its rich fabric of sexuality, faith, filial loyalty, rivalries and alliances, is by far the more engaging story line. Unfortunately, Ann's section bleeds off much of the tension built up for the family saga, as it takes place after the dissolution of the family and concerns a hunt for a stolen horse. It seems a slice out of a different book, perhaps one written by Cormac McCarthy.

On the other hand, it does give the reader a bit of a breather before the book takes its final desperate plunge, as the widowed Rachel struggles to make a living from the land for herself and her dependents in the face of increasing pressure from the church and encroaching Navajo.

Whatever its flaws, "Red Water" delivers an unforgettable portrait of the unceasing labor, passion and danger of frontier life, recalling the best of Willa Cather. Freeman makes vivid the ferocity of purpose it took to wrest a living from a wild red land and makes inevitable the intensity of life among people who try. In particular, her evocation of the Great Basin, its harsh landscape of red rock and twisted cypress and winters that come like an apocalypse, forms the perfect stage for this drama of love and faith and greed at the edge of wilderness.

*

Janet Fitch is the author of "White Oleander."

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