For the past two weeks I have been immersing myself in recent novels about the Mountain Meadows Massacre (including AMV contributor Sarah Dunster’s novel Lightning Tree) with a plan to turn my studies into a dissertation chapter on the Mormon historical novel. Last week I revisited Judith Freeman’s 2002 novel Red Water, which treats the aftermath and legacy of Mountain Meadows through the eyes of three of John D. Lee’s wives. When I’d first read the book five years ago, I came away with a poor opinion of it. Having now reread it, though, I find that my opinion of it has changed.
Here are a few of my thoughts on the book:
1. When I first read Red Water, I felt that it sensationalized polygamy and cast—or caricaturized—nineteenth-century Mormons as fanatics. Supporting these opinions were the novel’s treatment of polygamous sexuality and the characters’ use of fiery Mormon rhetoric. Freeman, I felt, cast what were rarities in nineteenth-century Mormon life as common, thus painting an inaccurate and unsympathetic portrait of Mormons and Mormonism. This time around, however, I noticed that Freeman’s portrait of Lee and his wives are more nuanced than I first believed. While certain aspects of her narrative, still seem to tease the line between what is and is not sensationalism, I can see how Freeman uses them to develop her themes and comment on and critique certain cultural attitudes. Besides, these aspects that seemed so sensational and exaggerated during my first reading seemed less so after the second read. I think this is partly because I have a better grasp on nineteenth-century Mormon life and its often fiery (and fanatical) rhetoric than I did five years ago, and partly because I had built these aspects up so much after my first reading that I expected them to play a much bigger role in the narrative than they actually do.
2. Red Water is probably the best novel about the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Unlike Marilyn Brown’s The Wine-Dark Sea of Grass (2001), another Mountain Meadows novel, Freeman wisely avoids the temptation to depict the actual massacre, thus allowing the reader to experience the massacre through rumors and evasions. This works well, in my opinion, because it foregrounds our tenuous grasp on what actually happened in the Meadows. As many have pointed out, all of what we know about the massacre relies on the testimonies of murderers and very small children, and neither is wholly reliable. Placing the event in the realms of the unknowable, therefore, forces the reader to experience (and possibly come to terms with) the frustration and trauma of not fully knowing what happened, who did it, and why. This trauma and frustration has been at the heart of Mormonism’s uneasiness with the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and Red Water accurately recreates it.
3. Freeman juggles history and fiction well. I read Red Water in tandem with Will Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets, and it is clear that Freeman relied heavily on Bagley’s research. (Both Bagley and Freeman acknowledge each other in the credits of their books, which were published around the same time.) I have many qualms with Bagley’s book, but it is clear that he has read deeply into the primary and secondary literature about Mountain Meadows. Much of what I like about Freeman’s characterization of John D. Lee comes, I think, from Bagley’s refusal to deify Lee in the manner of Juanita Brooks (whose work and opinion of Lee seems to have influenced what I don’t like about Marilyn Brown’s glowing representation of Lee). For Bagley, Lee is contradictory personality who is at once a big-hearted Saint, a monomaniacal murderer/pedophile, and everything else in between. Freeman gives her John D. Lee this chameleon quality by keeping him at arm’s length from the narrative voice. What we learn of him comes from three of his wives, all of whom experienced him in unique and sometimes conflicting ways. Freeman never gives her readers reason to admire Lee, who is ultimately too loathsome of a character, but she does give them reason enough to pity him. Working in fiction, and from multiple perspectives, also gives her the freedom of not having to draw clear conclusions. This is one advantage Red Water has over the non-fictional Blood of the Prophets.
5. I should also note that Red Water lacks the buffed buckskin and Little House on the Prairie quality that is the downfall of so much Mormon historical fiction. Life in Freeman’s Southern Utah is hard and unforgiving, and I think this more accurately reflects what life was like on the Mormon frontier. Also, Freeman’s terse style evokes the sparse, unadorned writings of the Mormon pioneers on the fringe.
4. Additionally, I like how Red Water pays tribute to nineteenth-century anti-Mormon novels by including many common tropes from nineteenth-century anti-Mormon novels, such as depicting young teenage victims of polygamy, blood atonements, and an endowment exposé. Admittedly, I’m not thrilled that these tropes are finding a new audience, but I don’t want to dismiss these as simply cheap potshots from an ex-Mormon writer. Red Water, after all, betrays a deep familiarity with this tradition of literature, and I admire how Freeman draws upon that tradition to tell her story. Besides, the anti-Mormon tropes in the book are mostly associated with just one character, Ann Gorge Lee, who was Lee’s last and youngest wife and the author of a bizarre autobiography (now housed in the BYU library). Significantly, this autobiography is the source of many of the anti-Mormon tropes in Red Water, suggesting that they are not so much potshots as they are accurate reflections of Ann Lee’s attitudes toward Mormonism. Overall, I felt that the tone Red Water is ambiguous enough to permit readers to draw other conclusions about Mormonism than those given in the novel. In fact, I would argue that throughout the novel, Freeman constructs her narrative in a way that compels her readers to question what they think they know about her characters. As readers, we are not meant to take anything we read at face value.