The Wine-dark Sea of Grass
Morgan B. Adair
Salt Press (Springville, Utah), 2001. Hardcover:
Suggested retail price: $24.95 (US)
How could good people do something so horrible? When that question wasfirst asked by those investigating the killing of over 120 immigrantsin the tragedy known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the responsewas denial: "We didn't do it. It was the Indians." Once the essentialfacts of the Massacre came to light, anti-Mormon writers provided adifferent answer: "They were not good people." With the ball back inthe Mormon court, the next phase was rationalization: "It was not sucha bad thing." There was an army approaching. We were in a war. Membersof the Fancher train (and the preceding wagon train, the "MissouriWildcats") incited the Indians to uprising, and they had to be killedto placate the Indians.
The Massacre has been dealt with in anti-Mormon fiction, but MarilynBrown's The Wine-Dark Sea of Grass is the first novel that I'maware of that focuses on the Massacre from the Mormonperspective. Another novel was just released: Ferry Woman: A Novelof John D. Lee and the Mountain Meadows Massacre, by GeraldGrimmett, Limberlost Press. Yet another is forthcoming: RedWater, by Judith Freeman (author of A Desert of PureFeeling), possibly from a major publisher.
Brown has made an effort to make her story historically accurate, butsometimes accepts rumors that put the immigrants in a negativelight. Take, for example, the rumor that the "Missouri Wildcats"poisoned a spring, resulting in the death of livestock. ProctorRobinson died after skinning one of the dead cattle, the poisonsupposedly being transmitted when he rubbed his eye. This rumorcirculated after the massacre as an example of the outrages committedby immigrants traveling through Utah that incited the Mormon angerthat was misdirected against the Fanchers. The authoritative source onthe massacre, Juanita Brooks's The Mountain Meadows Massacre,notes that a much more likely explanation is that Robinson died of abacterial infection from skinning a decaying carcass, and that thecattle died of natural causes. Nevertheless, Brown treats Robinson'sdeath as if caused by the Missourians.
As one reads through the list of namesand ages of those killed in the Massacre, one notices that theparty consisted mostly of young families. For the most part, Browndepicts the party as a faceless crowd, "like a river." The oneexception is a man and his pregnant wife that the protagonist, Jacob,talks to on the road. Coincidentally, this is the man that Jacob isexpected to kill in the massacre. Members of the immigrant train weredisarmed, then walked, single file, back toward Cedar City. Afterwalking a short distance, the command was given to halt, and each ofthe Mormons was to kill the immigrant at his side. Brown's descriptionof the massacre doesn't capture the horror of the tragedy. Most of thepeople killed are part of the faceless crowd. When the order wasgiven, Jacob "saw the men of the Fancher train thudding to theground." His attention immediately turns to the man he is supposed tokill, who is attempting to wrest Jacob's gun away from him. For Jacob,what was to be a massacre suddenly became a struggle for his life. Thekilling of this man, the only one of the immigrants who is notfaceless, is done in self-defense. The man dies asking that question,"How could? .& .& ."
Brown correctly places John D. Lee near the front of the column,behind a wagonload of sick and wounded immigrants. Jacob is shockedwhen he sees Lee killing them, but realizes that no one who could tellwhat happened could be left alive.
In depicting the Massacre, Brown could take a lesson from Spielberg'sSaving Private Ryan. The opening scene, perhaps the mosteffective depiction of the horror of war ever made, succeeds by givingmany details in rapid succession. In comparison, Brown has given us awide-angle view. Details of the massacre that Brown could have drawnon have been preserved in the accounts of both the Mormon participantsand children who survived. For example, Mary Elizabeth "Sallie" Bakerwas 5 years old at the time of the Massacre:
Sallie Baker recalled she was sitting on her father's lap when thesame bullet that killed him nicked her ear, leaving a scarforever. The bloodshed was imprinted on Sallie's memory for the restof her life. Only her words can begin to describe her feelings. Shewas eighty-five years old and still remembered:
But even when you're that young you don't forget the horror of havingyou father gasp for breath and grow limp, while you have your armsaround his neck, screaming with terror. You don't forget the bloodcurdling war whoops and the banging of guns all around you. You don'tforget the screaming of the other children and the agonized shrieks ofwomen being hacked to death with tomahawks. And you wouldn't forgetit, either, if you saw your own mother topple over in the wagon besideyou, with a big red splotch getting bigger on the front of her calicodress. .& .& .
One of the Mormons ran up to the wagon, raised his gun and said,"Lord my God, receive their spirits, it is for thy Kingdom that I dothis." Then he fired at the wounded man who was leaning againstanother man, killing them both with the same bullet.
A 14 year-old boy came running up toward our wagon, and the driver,who was a Mormon, hit him over the head with the butt end of his gun,crushing the boy's skull. A young girl about 11 years old, all coveredwith blood, was running toward the wagon when an Indian fired at herpoint blank. (Anna Jean Backus, Mountain Meadows Witness: The Lifeand Times of Bishop Philip Klingensmith, 136-7)
Brown shifts the point of view of the narrative several times in thenovel. Each chapter begins with the name of the character from whosepoint of view that chapter is told. Brown could have used thistechnique to make a very powerful book, just by including one morepoint of view, that of one of the members of the Fancherparty. Imagine seeing the massacre from the point of view of a 5 or 6year-old child whose lack of comprehension of events only adds to theterror they feel. Then imagine how they would feel, after watchingtheir family killed by the Mormons, being given to a Mormon family tobe cared for.
Although the cover of the book and my review thus far might lead youto believe that The Wine-Dark Sea of Grass is a novel about theMountain Meadows Massacre, that is not really the case. The Massacreis a backdrop to the actual story, a story of obsessive love betweenElizabeth and John D. Lee, and between Jacob and Elizabeth, who endsup marrying Jacob's father, J.B. Polygamy complicates many of themarriages in the novel, just as it did in real life. Much of the novelseems to be from the romance genre, so I'll have to leave that part ofit for someone more familiar with that genre to review.
Finally, a note on the printing. While the book is nicely bound andhas an attractive dust jacket, there are problems with the printedtext. There is almost no bottom margin -- the text comes within 1/4 to1/8 inch of the bottom of the page, and on many pages, the text isprinted slightly crooked.
While I enjoy reading history, I believe literature has a greaterpotential to let us imagine the feelings and motivations of others andexplore human complexity. In telling the Mountain Meadows story fromthe Mormon point of view, Marilyn Brown has told us that this horriblething happened, that good people did it, and somehow they continued tobe good people. I'm confident that the answer to how this could happencould be found by unraveling the complexities of human nature, but Ihaven't found that answer yet.
© 2001 Morgan B. Adair <