Krakauer Trilogy: Under the Banner of Heaven

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October 10, 2013 by carlywont


When I went to buy this book at the ever-lovely Book People (a great Austin bookish institution….minus the sentry at the door looking you over to see if you’re a shop lifter…the hell is up with that BookPeople?) I was surprised to find it in the True Crime section. Surprised but admittedly a little excited since its inclusion in this terrific genre meant I could probably finish it in a day or two whilst sitting in my bed and letting my sympathetic nervous system do the page-turning work for me.  (True crime is a guilty pleasure of mine on par with Taco Bell and Keeping Up With the Kardashians.)

Under the Banner of Heaven chronicles the horrific story of the Lafferty brothers—fundamentalist Mormons who “received” a “commandment” from God to kill their sister-in-law and infant niece. Krakauer contextualizes the Lafferty story inside a broader exploration of Mormonism’s (often bloody) roots, switching the narrative each chapter (a la Grapes of Wrath).

Krakauer’s interspersing of general LDS history with the story of the Lafferty brothers’ deranged narrative apparently got the LDS leadership worked up into a bit of a frenzy. And I can understand why they were pissed, to some extent. It is kind of cheap and easy of Krakauer to weave the two together, using the shocking Lafferty story to propel the history of Mormonism forward. Reading the Lafferty story back to back with the crazy parts of Mormonism’s founding (and there are a LOT of crazy parts) does give the reader an impression of Mormonism as a bloodthirsty religion whose foundational principles sprouted from the minds of narcissistic, perverted, and in many cases, dangerous, men.

Indeed, I did find myself gawking at this book every once in awhile, freaked out by mainstream Mormon beliefs (Revelation? No coffee? Israeli-ancestry for Native Americans? An all-male and—until the freaking 70s—all-white priesthood? A gold-plated book buried near Rochester, NY that conveniently disappeared after Joseph Smith read it?) as well as disgusted (and concerned) by the seeming prevalence of 13-year-old brides in the fundamentalist brand of the faith. (If you are looking for a particularly chilling story, research Kenyon Blackmore.)

Of course, just because Krakauer is focusing on Mormonism here doesn’t mean he (or his readers) believe that other religions don’t have just as much of a sanguinary and truculent past.

Mormonism also happens to have the unfortunate advantage of being founded in the 1800s, and can therefore be vetted for the truth by historians and also average people. They’re an easy target. For example, Joseph Smith mentions horse-pulled wagons in ancient America in either Book of Mormon or D&C (I don’t quite remember)—something that simply didn’t exist.

Anyway, the Book of Mormon’s obvious scientific fallacies don’t seem to bother the millions of Mormons out there. In fact, did you know Mormonism is the fastest-growing faith in the Western Hemisphere? Krakauer writes, “At present in the United States there are more Mormons than Presbyterians or Episcopalians. On the planet as a whole, there are now more Mormons than Jews. Mormonism is considered in some sober academic circles to be well on its way to becoming a major world religion—the first such faith to emerge since Islam.” Holy wow!

One of my favorite parts of the book came near the end. Krakauer shares the arguments made for and against Ron Lafferty’s sanity during his trial for the murders and this structure works wonderfully (albeit a bit too obviously) to force the reader to consider the mental health ramifications of any kind of religious faith.

Krakauer quotes Noel Gardner, an expert for the prosecution:

“A false belief isn’t necessarily a basis of mental illness. Most of mankind subscribes to ideas that are not particularly rational…For example, many of us believe in something referred to as trans-substantiation. That is when the priest performs the Mass, that the bread and wine become the actual blood and body of Christ. From a scientific standpoint, that is a very strange, irrational, absurd idea. But we accept that on the basis of faith, those of us who believe that. And because it has become so familiar and common to us, that we don’t even notice, in a sense, that it has an irrational quality to it. Or the idea of the virgin birth, which from a medical standpoint is highly irrational, but it is an article of faith from a religious standpoint.”

This suspense of logic that happens in religious followers (including myself, to some degree!) is interesting and I loved thinking about it throughout Under the Banner of Heaven.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Krakauer since my two visions of him are somewhat incongruent (one as a New Yorker contributor and one as the author ofInto the Wild, the book loved by trustafarians the world over). Overall, though, I was pleasantly surprised with Under the Banner of Heaven. Here, Jon Krakauer is a great, straightforward storyteller writing on a topic I (as an agnostic upstate New Yorker) knew very little about.

I’m looking forward to using all my new Mormon knowledge in conversation with all my Mormon-ignorant East Coast family and friends. At the very least, I can now take over and dominate the conversation anytime anyone tries to talk about Big Love around me. Yeah!

Chloe Sevigny busy being the best character in Big Love:


Bill’s mom busy being the second-best character in Big Love:


K I better go before this post just becomes Big Love photos and gifs.

[This is an archival post. It originally appeared on before Three Books migrated here.]


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