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The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir


The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir

There are few books that have gripped me as tightly and affected me as strongly as THE SOUND OF GRAVEL, a riveting memoir by debut author Ruth Wariner. Raised by a polygamist family on a ramshackle farm in rural LeBaron, Mexico, Ruth was born into a complicated and often harrowing combination of neglect, brainwashing and ignored abuses. As the 39th of her father's 42 children, she has lived through enough experiences for 10 lifetimes, and her story demands to be told. While finding the courage and acceptance to write about such a disturbing upbringing would be impossible for most, Wariner has found a way to turn her hardships into a powerful, enlightening work.

Ruth’s story began even before her birth, when her grandfather, Alma Dayer LeBaron, formed an extreme Mormon sect in Mexico, safe from the eyes of the authorities. LeBaron believed polygamy to be the highest form of religion, leading to his excommunication from the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Initially, Ruth’s mother’s parents were huge supporters of LeBaron and his son Joel’s beliefs, but they quickly became disillusioned by the men’s inability to take care of their multiple wives and children. Unfortunately, by the time they left the community, their daughters --- including Ruth’s mother, Kathy --- were all living as plural wives with too many children to count. Soon after, Joel LeBaron, the community’s “Prophet” and Kathy’s husband, was brutally murdered by his own brother in a bid for power. Although Ruth’s mother remarried, her new husband was not much of an improvement.

"Whether you are curious about the realities of polygamy or enjoy stories about courageous, inspiring women, THE SOUND OF GRAVEL will keep you absolutely riveted."

When we first meet Ruth, she is living in a tiny house with no electricity or running water, sharing a bed with her older, bed-wetting, developmentally disabled sister, Audrey. Wariner deftly writes from the perspective of her childhood self, recalling with startling innocence the stench of mouse droppings and the sensation of waking up soaking wet. For the reader, it is immediately clear that something is very, very wrong, but there is nothing to do but read on and hope for the best. As young Ruth guides us through her day, it is obvious that there is not a lack of love in her household, as unusual though it may be. Kathy clearly lives for her children and often bends their religious rules to allow for luxuries like television and sweet treats. Still, Kathy often has trouble seeing past her devotion to her new husband, Lane, often at the expense of her children. Lane himself is a bit of a failure --- clumsy, unambitious and not very involved as a father, despite his multiple families and numerous children.

As Ruth continues to mature and explore the world around her, her immediate family grows rapidly, with her mother producing children at an alarming rate. With each addition to the family, her health suffers, as do the rest of her children, as one more mouth to feed means less for everyone else. Ruth herself begins to take on a more parental role, caring for the younger children as if they were her own. As she adores her siblings and has been raised to be dutiful, she cannot see the absurdity of her situation, but the reader must press on, cringing and gasping as Ruth is put through unimaginable hardships, including the abuses of her big sister and the abrupt death of her favorite baby sister.

In time, however, Ruth starts questioning the way her family lives. While she is not immediately against polygamy, she cannot stand the way Lane continues to impregnate his wives even as he cannot care for any of them. At the same time, she begins to doubt her mother’s insistence that faith is the only way, especially after she watches Lane abuse her. Although her mother encourages her to forgive and forget, Ruth argues that some abuses are unforgivable and should not be ignored in favor of “being a good Christian.” As a writer, Wariner never demonizes the members of her community, realizing that many of them are truly doing what they believe is best, but she is unflinchingly honest in her descriptions of the pain her community leaders have caused. She strikes a remarkable balance given her own personal trauma.

I am tempted to divulge all of the horrors Wariner faces in her youth, but that would do a disservice to her immense talent. You must read the book and experience every brutality, surprise and, yes, shining moment of hope for yourself so that Wariner receives the attention she deserves.

With shows like "Big Love" and "Sister Wives" on television, many of us are familiar with the pitfalls of plural marriage, but if you think THE SOUND OF GRAVEL will be boring and predictable, you could not be more wrong. Wariner is compulsively readable, and though she does not shy away from such horrific topics as death and molestation, her writing is not voyeuristic in the least, but rather sharply intelligent and perfectly paced. She is so tremendously gifted, in fact, that I read this book in two emotional and surprisingly physically draining sittings. Every time I believed Kathy would make the move away from Le Baron to save her children, she would shock me by committing herself even more fully to Lane and polygamy. Young Ruth, meanwhile, is keenly observant and incredibly brave, which creates a thick tension between the two, but never at the cost of love.

Whether you are curious about the realities of polygamy or enjoy stories about courageous, inspiring women, THE SOUND OF GRAVEL will keep you absolutely riveted. If you do decide to read the book, I encourage you to research Ruth Wariner further, as she truly is an incredible woman and should serve as a role model for us all.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 4, 2016

The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir
by Ruth Wariner

  • Publication Date: April 25, 2017
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250077702
  • ISBN-13: 9781250077707