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These women were brave and tough -I would not have survived!
Red Water - Judith Freeman
Member Name: catsholiday
Red Water - Judith Freeman
Advantages: A novel through which we learn a lot of Mormon pioneer history
Disadvantages: Bone from the point of view of the book
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.
Summary: A well written book based on historical events and real people