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.
The most amazing thing about the book is that the reader will not likely dwell on who was to blame at all but rather wonder, "If I had been there, would I have participated?"
But the reader likely will not be able to answer that question. And herein lies the book's greatest value.
It won't allow the reader much distance from the people and the events. It just is not convenient. You have to sweat it out in your own soul. It grabs you and won't let you go.
At one moment, after most of the horrors of the massacre are finished, readers may find themselves metaphorically standing in two places. On one side an emigrant stands using an infant as a human shield. On the other side stands a Mormon with his gun ready to fire. Is it a nightmare being recounted? Is it a real event? Who do you side with?
Violence comes when other people are cast as so different that they are treated as less than human. This book forces readers to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And that valley is within each reader.
This story offers the reader the chance to confront humanity. It can give a gift of understanding and a blessed uncertainty.
The strangest thing of all is that the book can expand the reader's love for other people. It would not be surprising for a reader to finish the book not thinking about blame but but having a hope that all those involved can find forgiveness and that the love of God would heal the deepest wounds.