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American pioneers fascinate me - what made so many people traverse the globe, and then a vast land, usually on the basis of a calling from God?
I recently read a review for "Red Water" by catsholiday which I enjoyed immensely and which pricked my curiosity. She was kind enough to note my enthusiasm in the comments box and sent her copy of the book to me.
"Red Water" is a work of fiction but it does feature people who did exist. The book features early Mormon settlers and the main plot device is the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre which took place in southern Utah. In this horrific event, 120 emigrants were slaughtered by the Mormon and Indian settlers. Twenty years later John D Lee, a close associate of church leader Brigham Young, was executed for playing a part in the massacre.
It's generally accepted nowadays that Lee was by no means the only participant and by his own admission he killed no-one but nor did he stop anyone involved in the massacre. He became a scapegoat for the crime with all his powerful supporters turning against him. The book considers that his polygamy may have had something to do with this - Lee married 19 women over the course of his life and while not all of them remained with him forever, Judith Freeman's book focuses on three of his wives in detail and studies plural marriage in particular.
Over the course of three parts Freeman tells the story of Emma, Lee's "English bride", which is told in the first person. Ann's story follows, related in the third person followed by Rachel's which is related in diary form.
All three women are very different. Emma is fiercely independent and resourceful, having crossed the American continent carrying a handcart in appalling weather following her emigration from Uckfield to America. Ann is a child bride, and in Freeman's mind anyway becomes a close ally of Emma's. Rachel on the other hand is close to neither Emma nor Ann and is the sister of John D Lee's first wife.
Through the fictional recollections of these three women Freeman has painted a colourful novel although it has to be said the colour which is used the most as a metaphor is the red of the title in reference to the Meadows Mountain Massacre and other blood spilled in the story.
I have an online friend from America who is a Mormon and I can remember her describing her wedding to me and showing me pictures of her wedding at the church Tabernacle. For a believer such as her, it wasn't just a joyous day when she was joined in holy matrimony with her husband - it was also an incredibly powerful spiritual event for her due to her faith. This memory returned to me as I read Freeman's description of Ann's wedding to Lee and I have to say as a non-believer but as someone who was deeply touched by my friend's description of her day I cannot understand why there are still some members of the Latter Day Saints church (LDS) who practice polygamy and justify it through their interpretation of their faith.
While John D Lee is the glue that holds these women together in the book, it's the concept of plural marriage and how it affects women which is the most fascinating facet of the book. Freeman isn't scared to consider how jealousy - both petty and passionate - would affect the women who according to the book seem to have lived in an uneasy alliance together. In Emma's section Freeman relates Emma's feelings of joy when Lee comes to sleep in her bed and also her feelings of jealousy when he goes elsewhere.
Freeman paints Lee as incredibly carnal man and suggests his downfall within the LDS church came more through that than any involvement in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. It is suggested he scandalised many within his church with his marriage to 13 year old Ann and hints at admissions he made about his sexual prowess to others.
Sex is featured in the book and it seems to be used purely to help explain Emma's initial feelings of love and lust for Lee at the start of their marriage and then highlight her jealousy when she realises she has to share this man. There is one scene which finds a young Ann coming in to bed with Emma and indulging in lesbian sex which doesn't really fit in with the story and whether Freeman used this to highlight how close the two women were or just to add some titillation I don't know.
I do feel that this scene represents a flaw in how Freeman views these women. Whilst not dismissing the notion that some of these "sister wives" could have turned to one another altogether, I personally find it unlikely. Freeman paints a picture of a lifestyle which was hard for all these women. John D Lee didn't just expect his wives to keep house but he also expected them to work to help him earn enough money to keep them all. As a result many of these women were toiling to provide food either by growing crops or keeping animals all day and without the modern appliances we have today even making something as simple as butter wasn't easy.
So while within their faith it was important for most of these women to bear children, it strikes me as unlikely that the jealousies and Sapphic love featured in the book would have been anything like Freeman paints them purely because these women wouldn't have had the time so heavy was their workload. If they were going to turn to one another it's surely more likely it would have been for help with child rearing or providing food surely.
The section featuring Emma is eminently readable and paints her as a feisty and spirited woman who is carried through hard times by her faith and her resourcefulness. Emma writes in the first person, looking back on her life from the point of Lee's execution. She describes her sister wives in detail and recalls conversations with these women about women that came before her and her observations of them.
Ann's chapter was my favourite. Not much is known about Ann's life after she left Lee upon his excommunication by the church so Freeman uses great licence in this section which is effectively an 1870s version of a road trip with Ann, a keen and competent horsewoman, travelling in search of one of her stolen horses whilst dressed as a man. During the course of her journey she reminisces about her life with Lee and as a sister wife to him.
Ann is perhaps the least true to her religion and in her section her independent thinking reveals her questioning many of the ways of the church and relates how this former child bride lost her faith as she learned more about the massacre of the "Gentiles" by the Mormons.
Rachel is perhaps the least likeable of the wives featured. Lee married her sister first but also married her own widowed mother as well as her and Freeman makes the suggestion Rachel was happy to do this not because she loved Lee but because she wanted to remain close to her beloved sister. Rachel is painted as the most pious of the women and certainly she views herself as the most loyal of his wives following his execution.
While she doesn't particularly come across as sympathetic it's perhaps through the section Freeman has written as Rachel's diary entries that the hardship these women endured is brought home to us. Living life in an inhospitable landscape is painted vividly here and you do have to marvel at how these women coped then.
I had always viewed plural marriage as something that would have offered security and perhaps less in the way of toil for women of the period but Freeman has made me realise that certainly within Lee's family this wasn't the case at all. Because Lee had so many wives and was also absent for much of the time many of these women were just a step up from being a single parent. They were expected to take care of these children with only limited assistance from their husband. Lee was undeniably a good businessman but once the church turned against him the women, who hadn't had it that easy when times were good, discovered that things were going to get even worse. The wives undeniably helped one another with taking care of children and in helping children come into the world but there's nothing to suggest they all pitched in together all the time - perhaps due to the suggestion Lee kept them at different homes dotted throughout the area.
Rachel's diary entries recall how hard life was as a widow following Lee's execution and while it's something of a marvel to consider - even within a fictional milieu - what she had to resort to just to survive Freeman cannot help but bring a bravado to Rachel's story that sees her trying to convince anyone who will read that she is somehow the most superior of Lee's wives. This bravado does slip towards the end, but Freeman manages to convince the reader that Rachel has something of a chip on her shoulder about Emma.
Overall this is a fascinating book but it shouldn't under any circumstances be viewed as a historical reference book. For all the careful research - particularly in relation to the Mountain Meadows massacre - this is a work of fiction and has to be viewed purely as such.
The prose however is wonderfully descriptive and thanks to the three very different writing styles used for the women Freeman manages to relate their stories in a wonderfully personal way which enables you to get under the skin of each character.
The red that runs through not just the water of the title but also the rugged landscape of Utah and Nevada and the skyline in the places the women travel to is perhaps a little overused as a metaphor for the blood spilled in Mountain Meadows in 1857 and the consequences of what happened both on that day and of Lee's eventual execution, with Freeman labouring the point perhaps just a little bit too much.
That's a minor criticism however as overall this is a fascinating and enjoyable novel which acts as a reminder of how hard life was not so long ago.
Red Water by Judith Freeman
My daughter gave me this book as she knew we were going to visit Salt Lake City and she knows I enjoy reading books about places where I have been or am going. I had previously read " The Nineteenth Wife" by David Ebershoff and been totally gobsmacked by the way these poor Mormon women were treated and so I was very interested to see if this book told a similar story.
Judith freeman lives in California, USA and has written three other novels "The Chinchilla Farm", "Set for Life" and " A Desert of Pure Feeling". She has also written a collection of short stories in a book called "Family Attractions". I have not previously read any of her work but if this book is anything to go by then I will certainly think about another depending on what the book is about I am most drawn to "A Desert of Pure Feeling" going by title alone!
The book is based around an event that took place in 1857, at a place called Mountain Meadows in southern Utah where 120 emigrants were slaughtered. This was one of many massacres of pioneers that had been blamed on Indians and which it appears were actually the work of a band of Mormons led by John D. Lee who was one of Brigham Young's close associates.
The book begins with John D. Lee's execution and the story is then told by one of his nineteen wives as a reminiscence of her life.
The book is a work of fiction built around this event and research that the author has done into the wives of this powerful, controlling man. The story is told through the voices of three of his many wives and as you get to each wives story the style of writing does change and certainly their views and interpretation of events are very different.
Emma is a young vigorous and capable Englishwoman who was one of many Mormon pioneers who walked across the United States westwards pulling all her worldy possessions in a hand cart. She falls for this strong, powerful and charismatic man and ends up marrying him. She loves her husband unconditionally and even though she is not thrilled at having to share him she still obeys his every instruction and is desperate to spend her time with him an give him children.
John D. Lee is a controlling and quite demanding man with a voracious sexual appetite. The descriptions of his nightly activities leave nothing to the imagination and are far from romantic. Despite this and the fact that he continues to take further wives, Emma still loves this man.
The second wife that tells us about their lives is Ann who is a tough pioneer young woman born and bred out west. She was married to John D. Lee at the age of thirteen and was never really happy. She and Emma become quite close friends.
The third wife to share her story is Rachel who is rather older and exceedingly devout. She was pleased to marry John Lee as she was very fond of her sister who was his first wife. She is also extremely loyal to Lee and an obedient if somewhat blind to his faults wife.
These three women are all very different but are forced to live in very close proximity and share a husband. They are also forced to try and eke out a living in a very harsh environment. Utah at this time was tough; there were freezing cold winters and long dry summers. They didn't have central heating or the warm light clothes we have today. They had to farm, cook, make clothes, bedding and often furniture for their family to use.
John Lee travelled a lot converting people, working with Brigham Young and sometimes bringing back another wife. These women were forced to survive by themselves surrounded by harsh Indian Territory. They were rivals but also supported each other at times because they were forced to share their powerful, charismatic and at time considerate husband.
John Lee was described as a big person in character. He had a magnetic personality, he was controlling, hard working and quite prepared to justify his ends by explaining it through his beliefs. He was very ambitious and wanted to own more land, build bigger and better houses and become successful within the Mormon Church and he was quite prepared to use his faith to justify desire and ambition.
STYLE OF WRITING
Judith Freeman cleverly uses very different styles of writing for each of the wives to tell their story. Emma, the young devoted English wife tells her story in a personal narrative. Anne the strong independent wife who was married to Lee at the age of thirteen has her story told through a third person narrator. Rachel's story is told through diary entries which I personally found the least engaging style. I found that I was most drawn to Emma who is a very strong person but sensitive to others. She holds the family together, looks after the children negotiates with the Indians and so much more. She is loyal to the family and her husband despite all she is put though. The wife I least warmed to was Rachel, who was a bit too holier than thou in my view; although she must have been pretty tough to survive out in the harsh land and basic pioneer living though so maybe I'm being a bit unkind.
I found all the women to be very different yet they were each in the same situation basically they adapted in very different ways. They were all pretty tough, they had to be and the authors' descriptions of even the most banal household activities show that these things were a major part of their day. No washing up machines and bread makers here, it was grow the wheat, then harvest and grind. They grew and hunted most of what they ate and during the winter this was pretty tricky under six feet of snow, in the summer came the dry and over a few years a drought left they pretty well starving one winter. The author describes the scenes with such accuracy and detail that you almost feel you are there with them
Aside from being a really good story this book gives an excellent insight into the struggles of the pioneers moving westwards. While we were in the States recently this came home loud and clear in several of the places we visited. These were tough people; they were prepared to sacrifice a lot in the hope that there would be a better life out west. I am not sure I would have wanted to go through what they did on the journey never mind years of hard struggle just to survive.
Through Emma we learn about the journey westwards pulling a handcart and then her determination to be a good wife, teach the children to read and communicate with the local Indian tribes. Through Ann we learn that some children are brought up out west and they are strong, determined women, able to ride for days and do almost all that a man could do at the time. She witnesses the event that her husband is accused of and writes to Emma to tell her what she saw. We read the letter at the end of the book. Through Rachel we see a truly devoted Mormon wife who will suffer all just to be accepted as Lee's wife even though she married to be with her sister and because it was God's will not because she loved Lee although in the end maybe she did.
As I have said the book is based on true events and many of the characters in the book were real people. The author has done considerable research but does emphasis that this is to be "read as a work of fiction, not a version of history."
I did find it interesting at the end of the book the author writes a note and tells the reader what actually happened to Emma and Rachel although she says what happened to Ann is uncertain although there is evidence of a marriage to a Frank Kennedy in 1894.
Knowing we were heading for Salt lake City I read this book before we went and I am so pleased that I did as it gave me a good background understanding of the bravery and strength of these people no matter what their religious beliefs. We drove part of the journey and it took us over three weeks. They walked about ten miles a day over rugged unknown country every day for months. When they 'arrived' there was no hotel or campsite they slept under the wagons until they physically built their own homes.
I found the story fascinating and came to admire the strength of character of these women. It is a well written story based on a horrendous act committed by a really nasty man who somehow managed to con some very lovely women through his charismatic character and bullish behavior.
WHAT OTHERS HAVE SAID:
"Freeman presents ravishing visions of land, which became as much a character in her drama as the people she so vividly conjure" - Newsday
" Compelling vivid writing that is both compassionate and unflinching; freeman has gotten under the skin of these three very different women and their milieu in a profoundly affecting way." - the Seattle Times
" Revalatory... creates a vivid, believable picture of the high religious fervor and the red-dust-covered hardships of the Utah frontier" - O the Oprah magazine
" Freeman renders the terrible beauty of this land and the flinty resolve of these people with great skill" - The Washington Post
Even if you are not interested in the Mormons this makes a very interesting read. It goes beyond the Mormon element and is really a look into the lives of the pioneer women out west in the latter half if the 1800s. I would heartily recommend a read and have even got my husband to put aside his crime thrillers and give it a go.
Thanks for reading. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.