Whether he's tracing a young man's doomed journey into the Alaskan wilderness, as he did with Into The Wild, or chronicling an ill-fated expedition to scale Mount Everest, his focus for Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer is fascinated by human behavior that pushes the conventional limits. His new book, Under the Banner of Heaven, focuses on two Mormon fundamentalist brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty who killed their sister-in-law and her 15-month-old daughter because, they said, God told them to do it. This seems to be the season for probing the more extreme manifestations of Mormonism. Among the recent titles on the topic (both reviewed elsewhere in this issue) are Dorothy Allred Solomon's Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk, an account of growing up in a polygamous Mormon family during the 1950s and '60s, and Sally Denton's American Massacre, the story of the 1857 ambush of a wagon train at Mountain Meadows, Utah, a slaughter apparently ordered by Mormon chieftain Brigham Young. Krakauer alludes to Solomon's fundamentalist father and to the massacre in this probing narrative. Looking into the mind of the true believer, he observes, "Ambiguity vanishes from [his] worldview; a narcissistic sense of self-assurance displaces all doubt. A delicious rage quickens his pulse, fueled by the sins and shortcomings of lesser mortals, who are soiling the world wherever he looks. His perspective narrows until the last remnants of proportion are shed from his life. Through immoderation, he experiences something akin to rapture."Raised among Mormons he greatly admired, Krakauer treats their religion in all its theological shades quite seriously. There's never a snide remark or sarcastic aside. But his studiously balanced reporting can't soften the savagery of the deed he describes or make palatable the astounding and unrepentant arrogance of the men who committed it. In detailing the events that led to the double-murder, the author also offers a brief history of the Mormon church and the violence and doctrinal schisms that have attended its growth. To help explain why socially disturbing practices arise among certain Mormons, he examines life in the remote town of Colorado City, Arizona (formerly known as Short Creek), a fundamentalist stronghold where plural marriages, although illegal, flourish openly and at government expense. Less frightening than the killers themselves are the intellectually arid and institutionally paranoid communities that incubate them.
Krakauer also takes up the case of Elizabeth Smart, who last year, at the age of 14, was abducted from her home in Salt Lake City to become the "bride" of her fundamentalist kidnapper. While her kidnapping gained international attention, Krakauer shows that her fate was not radically different from that of many other young girls who have been taken into plural marriage against their will and brainwashed into conformity. Shielded by their own sense of righteousness, the Lafferty brothers made no serious effort to cover their tracks after committing the 1984 murders. They were soon apprehended and convicted. Dan was given two life sentences; Ron was condemned to death but has yet to be executed. Krakauer makes no excuses for the Laffertys, but he does demonstrate that they were shaped by a theological mold. His insightful book brings readers closer to an understanding of their insular religion. Under the Banner of Heaven is a first-rate work of nonfiction from one of our most intrepid reporters.