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The Mountain Meadows Massacre

Two new books focus on a tragic event in Utah history: The first is nonfiction compiled by Mormon historians and underwritten by the LDS church; the second is fiction by award-winning Canadian novelist Alissa York.

Book Digest One might wonder why three Mormon historians—Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard—chose to investigate an unarguably black mark on the Mormon religion and published those results, some 150 years after the fact. Whatever the reason, Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Oxford University Press) is an apparently rigorous unpacking of the heretofore unacknowledged Mountain Meadows massacre in 1857, in which a Mormon militia and their Native American accomplices lured members of an overland emigrant party traveling through the Utah Territory from their fortified camp and murdered 120 men, women, and children—only 17 of the youngest children survived. Not surprisingly, this horrific incident was complicated by many crosscurrents of rumor, hysteria, suspicion, and vendetta—and Brigham Young’s teachings and rhetoric. Which results in a compelling and dramatic piece of historiography. What is news is the significant underwriting by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that made this scholarship possible.

Coincidentally, award-winning Canadian novelist Alissa York (Mercy) shines her narrative talents on the massacre, as it serves as the backdrop for Effigy (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), a complex story set on a 19th-century Utah ranch with a variegated cast of characters that includes hunter and horse breeder Erastus Hammer, his four wives, a circus contortionist turned ranch hand, an Indian guide, and a crow who makes its home on the massacre site and tells that terrible story. The potent admixture of characters and past history makes this a riveting, vivid tale. Frank Moher of Canada’s Weekend Post aptly observes:
If the novel featured just these four women, it would still be a welcome addition to the literature about the American frontier: Larry McMurtry on estrogen. York cuts across its potential for gothic excess… The total effect is exhilarating and genuinely fresh, a panoramic view of a pivotal time in Plains history, foregrounding characters who would normally be consigned to the edges of the canvas.
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