In Red Water Judith Freeman has accomplished something difficult–created characters whose beliefs I have no sympathy for, and who I’m not sure I even like, and made me want to read about them.
The novel is about the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857, when 120 Arkansas emigrants on their way to California were slaughtered in southwestern Utah. This event is one for which the Church of Latter-Day Saints has never to this day admitted responsibility. In particular, this novel is about John D. Lee, the Mormon bishop who was eventually hanged for his part in the event, from the points of view of three of his wives.
Red Water begins with Lee’s execution in 1877, as Emma Lee looks back at her conversion to the religion in England, journey to Utah, and acceptance of Lee as a husband. Although he is twice her age and she will be his eighth wife, he is charismatic and commanding, and she marries for love.
Once she arrives in southwestern Utah, a barren and harsh landscape, she begins to hear things that disturb her. The initial version she is told of the massacre is that the settlers were slaughtered by Indians. But Lee has their stock in with his, and the settlement has a room stuffed with men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing, some of it badly stained. Other versions of the story come out, ones that point the finger partially, or wholly, at the Mormon men, some alleging her husband was a leader. But Emma feels she must trust her husband.
Emma finds she has other hardships. She is not Lee’s eighth but seventeenth wife, although the other nine have left him. There is jealousy among some of the remaining wives. Lee’s families are so far-flung that Emma often goes days without seeing him. The land is bleak and unforgiving, and the work is hard. But Emma decides to face every hardship cheerfully.
Ann is Lee’s child bride, married to him at the age of 13 shortly after his marriage to Emma. Her narrative begins after Lee’s death as well, when she has long been separated from the family. On a pursuit of a horse thief from Idaho to southern Utah, she finds herself back in Lee’s old territory and reflects upon her life with him.
Ann marries Lee to keep her mother, who has lost faith and criticized the Mormons, under Lee’s protection. Despite their age difference, she is also attracted to him. After an initial rough start with Emma, the two became the closest of friends.
However, by the time Brigham Young sends Lee away from the southern settlements that he helped found and banishes him from the order as a scapegoat for the massacre, Ann has made some disillusioning discoveries and decides that Lee’s driving forces are greed and the pursuit of power. She leaves the family to wander on her own, often dressed as a boy.
Once Lee is thrown off by the Mormons, Emma and Rachel keep faith with him, but only Rachel willingly shares his prison. Her narrative is the last. As an old, bitter woman, she fights to survive in a remote area of northern Arizona where Lee has sent her.
This novel is fascinating for the details of the characters’ beliefs and the hard lives that they must live in settling these wild parts of the country. I also find fascinating the ability of men to rationalize as the will of god whatever foul or greedy things they want to do. Freeman’s portrayal of her characters, however, is amazingly unjudgmental and perceptive.
On a side note, for those who are interested in this subject, an excellent nonfiction source about modern fundamentalists, whose beliefs and rationalizations are strikingly similar to those depicted in this novel, is Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven.