REVIEW: Massacre At Mountain Meadows

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 16 2008 12:27 p.m. MDT

Whoever would have thought that a book about a massacre could have a positive life-changing effect on its readers? But that is exactly what you can expect when you read "Massacre at Mountain Meadows" by Mormon historians Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr. and Glen M. Leonard.

But to get to the point where the book can change your life, you probably will have to forget most of what you have heard about the Mountain Meadows Massacre. In many respects, this is what the three authors did. Their goal was to bring a fresh approach to the topic.

Part of the reason their book is so good is that so many people helped research it. A veritable army of researchers worked with them to find virtually every scrap of known information about the massacre, its victims, the perpetrators and supplementary information.

Another reason the book is so good is that the authors were committed to the truth — wherever it led them. The project was well funded, but the control of its content was in the authors' hands. And they pull no punches.

It is one thing to write a book as a solo author/researcher. It is quite another to write as a collaborative project where everything you write has two other historians looking it over. The authors met often and had to justify and convince each other as they went along.

They wanted to create a scholarly history following the strictest historical guidelines. They wanted to create a concise readable narrative that was accessible to the average reader. They hoped that by writing such a book that readers would examine their own lives and make positive decisions.

They succeeded on all accounts.

The narrative portion of the book is clear and precise in its language. The style does not ever draw attention to itself, the mark of both master writing and scrupulous editing. It never bogs down in too much detail, leaving much to endnotes and a fascinating appendix listing the names of victims, participants and property.

For the most part, the book does not react to other books written about the massacre. It carefully judges the sources and lets the reader know when a fact is in dispute.

Almost every endnote refers to multiple sources. The authors are loath to speculate.

Because they stick as close to the facts as possible, and because they tell the story in a narrative chronological fashion, there is a power in reading the book. The reader enters the world of the mid-1800s and almost adopts, if temporarily, the worldview of the people involved.

There is a power in this story. By reading, step by step, what happened, you will not just learn something, you will experience something.

Don't think, however, that this will be an easy experience. It is a massacre after all. Emotions run high with fear, hate, bigotry, revenge and more. Because you already know the ending, you will experience a sense of dread and suspense.

The authors have said they view what happened as a betrayal of ideals, not the result of ideals. And what a betrayal it is!

Most histories of the Mountain Meadows Massacre seem to center in and seethe about blame for the atrocity. "Massacre at Mountain Meadows" addresses the question, but it is not the heart of the book.

Responding to contemporary critics, the authors found no evidence that Brigham Young ordered the massacre either directly or indirectly. The actions of the participants as described in the book would make no sense (hesitating, wondering, arguing, worrying about what to tell Brigham Young) if someone had an order from the prophet. After seeing how the authors describe Brigham Young acting in other situations, the reader is likely to conclude that Brigham Young was probably the LEAST likely person in 1857 Utah to order anything like the massacre.

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