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Writing 'Massacre at Mountain Meadows'

Published: Thursday, Sept. 11 2008 12:06 a.m. MDT

It is a "terrible" book — and it is flying off the shelves.

In less than a month after its release, Oxford University Press is in its fourth printing of "Massacre at Mountain Meadows" by Mormon authors Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr. and Glen M. Leonard.

The three authors present a dark chapter of Utah history where a band of LDS militia members — aided by Indian allies —  killed a party of California-bound emigrants, including more than 120 men, women and children.

In a recent interview Walker, Turley and Leonard admit their book is terrible — not in the quality of its writing nor in its scrupulous accuracy, but because reading the book brings the reader face-to-face with the horrific acts it chronicles.

"You can't do it any other way . . . If it is a terrible story, you can't put pastels on a landscape like this," Walker said.

"It's a difficult book to read — and yet you don't want to quit reading it, because . . . you want to see if something does happen to stop it, but you know it won't because you know the end from the beginning," Leonard said.

"And yet, by going through that emotional witnessing of what happened, you begin to learn what really happened and learn whatever lessons can be gleaned from it," Turley said.

The type of book that was published a few weeks ago is not the same as what the authors intended to write when they began the project about six years ago.

"Wasn't this a two-year project?" said Turley. "It was a six-month project!" Walker said.

Originally the authors saw the book as a collection of essays that each one of them would write. As they progressed they realized the subject deserved a narrative. It was a story that needed to be told.

"We also found a lot more information than we expected," Turley said. "We did research from New England to Southern California, the Pacific Northwest to the Southeast. A lot of time was spent in the South Central states where a lot of the victims originated. And then months of time, cumulatively, at the National Archives. And the total amount of information we brought back from that was daunting. It took years to go through that information."

"It became not just a blessing of riches, but a mixed blessing of riches," Walker said. "Which is to say it became very hard to get our hands around all the information and still tell a very, what we hoped to be, a concisely written narrative that would interest the general reader."

Maintaining a high standard of scholarship while creating a tightly written narrative was a difficult task. "The general rule that most (historians) use is that a quarter gets stripped out before the final draft. But in this case I think there was a lot more than that," Walker said.

"And we agreed as we began to work together that we would not be disappointed if some favorite page or part of a chapter we wrote was on the cutting room floor, because we recognized as we were writing we were getting more information on the page than we could use. We had to trim it and set some priorities that would make the book tell the essential parts of the story without loading the reader with too much detail or too many asides," Leonard said.

"Which is why we reduced a lot of the detail to the back matter, where people who are really interested in that finer detail could find it without burdening every reader with that responsibility," Turley said.

The process was collaborative and intensive. The authors met regularly and went over each intricate detail.

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