Forge Books, 2010
Reviewed by Jeffrey Needle for the Association for Mormon Letters
(As promised, this brief review follows Russell Anderson’s fine overview
of this interesting work. I will try to bring out some points that were
most compelling to me.)
As mentioned in Russell Anderson’s review, Claire Avery is a pseudonym
for a writing team of several Catholic sisters. Having been raised in a
fundamentalist Catholic community, they’ve been motivated to explore
other, similar societies. Surely some of their own experience would
inform their opinion about other fundamentalist groups. And what group
is more in the news than the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saint, the Warren Jeffs group?
They call their fictional community “The Blood of the Lamb.” Presided
over by a fearsome prophet-figure, members live in lockstep to the
wishes of their Prophet. He is, after all, the only path to the
Celestial Kingdom for those who unite with him and his ideal.
Rachel and Sara are daughters of a fiercely loyal patriarch named
Abraham. His several wives live in a tense, competitive atmosphere
where the senior wife really rules the house, always, of course, in
subjection to her husband. Abraham is painted as a cruel, strict
father, inclined to take his children out to a special barn used for
punishment. He is depicted as a mostly robotic narcissist, who will go
to any lengths to discipline his children, including burying one alive!
Later scenes of him raping his daughter Rachel are hair-raising and
terrifying. Can such an awful person really exist in today’s world?
Mix into the plot a young man named Luke who falls helplessly in love
with Rachel. But Rachel has been claimed by another man who wishes her
to become his wife. (In fact, more than a dozen men have claimed
revelation that Rachel is to become his wife; only one, of course, can
be her husband.) The love story between Luke and Rachel is one just
brimming with pathos and possibility.
Let me preface my comments with the following thought. If you want to
learn about a man, it isn’t wise to consult his ex-wife. Chances are,
there is bad blood between them. It isn’t good practice to consult just
one side if you’re wanting a balanced, and fair, presentation of a
group’s beliefs and practices. I was therefore struck that the authors,
according to the Acknowledgments, spent nearly all their time with
Tapestry Against Polygamy and the HOPE Organization, two vehemently
anti-polygamy groups who are certain to skew the authors’ perception of
life within polygamist communities.
What emerges is a book overflowing with the kind of stereotypically
awful view of polygamy that one would expect to get from its most vocal
detractors. And not a word that the abuses described might be present
in the most extreme circumstances, but are virtually absent in many
If the goal of the authors was to produce a gripping, eminently readable
tract, they succeeded. I found myself alternately captivated and
repulsed by this book. No one can read the travails of these sisters
and, by extension, all the children, and wives, in this insulated and
dictatorial community, and not be deeply affected by them. But it takes
some discernment to recognize that the plotline here is more an
amalgamation of the worst of the worst, and is likely not reflected in
even the most notorious of the polygamous communities.
There are some, of course, who would argue that no polygamous community
can really function without a strong patriarch and the subsequent
degradation and subjugation of both wives and children. However, it is
simply factual that many polygamous households function in a nearly
normal fashion. Yes, father has the last word, but mothers, and even
children, play strong and often independent roles within the family
If you like a riveting story, and, in fact, an edifying and enabling
ending, this is a great read. The characters are vividly drawn, the
action moves along at a breakneck pace. There are really bad characters
and really good characters, and then those who must learn to grow out of
the trauma of their fundamentalist upbringing. In the end, the book
holds out hope for those caught in such oppressive conditions.
I do fear, however, that readers of this book who are not familiar with
the larger issue of polygamous families in the United States will come
away thinking that all such arrangements are oppressive and inhumane.
This simply doesn’t reflect the truth.
I do wonder what “Claire Avery” will produce next. It’s very likely
I’ll pick up the book and give it a read. After all, good writing is
good writing. I do hope, however, that they will choose a wider variety
of sources for their next work. Their skilled pen and keen eye for
plotting and characterization are badly needed in the current atmosphere
of lukewarm writing.