HERE'S AN AMERICAN TALE you may not have heard: In 1972, the polygamist prophet Joel LeBaron was shot to death by followers of his brother's murderous rival cult. Brother Ervil sat in an air-conditioned movie theater while, with a single bullet, his followers made a handful of women widows and left several dozen children fatherless. The brothers' conflict was over the control of their father's legacy—a fundamentalist Mormon settlement in the Chihuahuan Desert, Colonia LeBaron—the headquarters of Joel's Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times since 1956.
Local author Ruth Wariner was the 39th child born to the late prophet Joel. Her forthcoming memoir, The Sound of Gravel, details her experiences in Colonia LeBaron and elsewhere, living in the shadow of a nigh-mythical, unknown father.
The Firstborners—who believe the United States is a modern-day Babylon that will soon collapse under the weight of its own sin—encourage men to take many wives and women to birth countless children. This arrangement appears to bear universal support; a common refrain among LeBaron mothers is "better to have 10 percent of one good man than to have 100 percent of a bad one." But Wariner's narrative exposes the misery beneath the faithful platitudes. The large families are poor and undernourished, and the mothers are overcome with jealousy, loneliness, and longing. "People talked about happiness and love," she writes, "but I witnessed precious little evidence of it."
While Wariner's unique context may be the draw, the central narrative is one all too many people will find relatable. The Sound of Gravel is at heart a horrifying account of abuse and isolation, of unprotected children and unbelieved victims. The story here is far more memorable than the prose (which is weighed down by awkward, outdated pop culture references), but Wariner tells that story skillfully, wisely balancing trauma with comfort, nostalgia, and genuine-if-fleeting childhood joys. The "sound of gravel" is the sound of an uneasy return home. It's the pain, the memory, and the relief of finding yourself back on that familiar doorstep.