Judith Freeman's RED WATER is a beautifully rendered fictionalized account of one Latter-Day Saint family and the tragic event that haunted their lives and threatened the peace of the early Mormon church. Freeman's novel centers on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, an actual event in which 120 men, women, and children en route to California were horribly murdered by a Mormon militia and their Native American allies. One man, John D. Lee, was tried for this crime and in 1857, 20 years after the massacre, confessed and was executed by firing squad. RED WATER tells the story of three of his almost 20 wives. John D. Lee, known as "Father" to the women he married, remains somewhat of a mystery throughout the novel, as do the details of the massacre and his involvement in it. Instead, the novel focuses on the wives and the trials they suffer as well as the comforts they find in their polygamous family.
The novel is divided into three sections, each dedicated to one wife and each as stylistically different as the women's personalities. The first section, "Emma," is a beautifully told first person narrative told by the 18th wife of John D. Lee. Emma, Lee's "English bride," left her home country to settle on the American frontier with the Saints. Her love for Father was passionate and her faith strong. However, her spirited and self-assured personality often led to conflicts with the other wives. In Emma, Freeman has created a character whose strength, intelligence, and loyalty are as compelling as her weaknesses and flaws. Emma's tale is the majority of the book and covers the largest expanse of time and distance.
The next section, "Ann," tells of Lee's youngest wife, who had left him years earlier and who now finds herself chasing the thieves who have stolen her horse across mountains and mesas and through outpost towns. As she travels, she remembers her life with the Lee family, including her friendship with Emma, her marriage to Father, and the three children she left behind when she fled for a life of adventure and self-reliance. Perhaps Lee's most rebellious wife, Ann is eccentric and has sought out her own happiness. She is also the most interesting character, as her independence and cynicism put her at odds with the polygamous lifestyle she found with Lee.
"Rachel," the final section, is a brief series of diary entries by one of Lee's first wives (actually the sister of his first wife). Rachel is the last wife standing by Lee during his trial and imprisonment, the one who shares his final, desperate days. Now impoverished and shunned by the Mormon community and abandoned by the other wives, she is bitter and lonely. She is forced to confront her bleak prospects after Lee's execution when Emma arrives hoping to take custody of Ann's daughter, who Rachel has been raising. Stubborn and proud, Rachel struggles to maintain her dignity and relies on her faith in the face of adversity.
RED WATER is a well-written, engaging and poetically composed novel. The characters are interesting and compelling; their sorrows bitter and their triumphs bittersweet. Despite its harsh depiction of the jealousies, emotional neglect, and sexual tensions present in this family and the oppressive interpretation of the religion by John D. Lee, the novel is not an indictment against the Mormons or the Mormon religion. In fact, the Lee family is seen as renegade and is excommunicated from the church. The polygamous situation of the Lee family is difficult to empathize with, but Freeman handles it with grace and respect. Respect is especially shown for the women who obey the tenets of their faith. The novel carefully examines the way in which greed, violence, and the desire for power are often disguised as religious zeal and fervor. Most importantly, RED WATER explores the many manifestations of love and faith and what happens when both are challenged.
RED WATER is a quietly powerful and emotional tale. Freeman has presented a beautiful and often heartbreaking fictionalized account of a real family. Even before his imprisonment, John D. Lee was a less than ideal husband. Emma, Ann, and Rachel each respond to him in very different ways. While the Mountain Meadows Massacre and John D. Lee drive much of the action and create much of the tension, this story is about the women who were left to pick up the pieces of their lives as their community turned its back on them. Each wife had to forge her own personal and spiritual path, and RED WATER is the record of their choices, struggles, successes, and dreams.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 23, 2011