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Wallace, "The Righteous" (reviewed by Laura Compton) Options · View
Posted: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 7:37:15 PM

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Title: The Righteous
Author: Michael Wallace
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Genre: Thriller/Suspense
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: 330
Binding: Paperback
Price: $14.95

Reviewed by Laura Compton for the Association for Mormon Letters

A plural wife plotting escape from the polygamous community of Blister Creek in southern Utah opens this novel, pulling readers quickly into the middle of secret combinations and blood atonement murders. Readers familiar with LDS temple ceremonies will quickly grasp what is happening in its early pages, but might find themselves turned off by repeated references to the gruesome attack and its explicit descriptions.

"The Righteous," the first book in a trilogy by Michael Wallace, tells the story of Jacob and Eliza Christianson, children of an apostle in a fictitious polygamous sect which broke from the mainstream LDS church in the 19th century. Unlike several well-known actual schismatic polygamous groups, theirs values education (Jacob is a medical student, Eliza is considering college if she can avoid marriage long enough) and includes temple worship “uncorrupted” by late-20th-century changes adopted by mainstream Mormons. Its church leaders are also keenly aware of the problems of in-breeding and wrestle with the best ways to avoid weakening their gene pool as their population doubles every 20 years.

Jacob, because of his medical training and family connections to the Quorum of the 12, is tasked with examining the body of our escapee, traveling from Canada to Utah to investigate in person. When he finds injuries reminiscent of temple penalties, he realizes fellow church members are behind the killing – not the itinerant Mexican laborers fingered by some community leaders.

Jacob’s sister, Eliza, comes along for the ride, as she is smart, more familiar with southern Utah (having lived in Blister Creek for a few years), and – most importantly –17 years old and of a marriageable age. Her potential husbands want the chance to meet her and Jacob will decide which family will become connected to his own via his sister’s marriage. When he selects Eliza’s husband, he will select the family his own wife will come from as well. His father counsels him:

“Men fight for that first wife. You know better than anyone that you won’t be a full member of Zion until you take a wife. Every minute you stay single you put yourself at risk. Other men, more aggressive, will look to supplant you. They’ll take your wives, your position, your future.”...
Jacob didn’t have an answer. Nothing his father would accept. “I can’t, Dad. Not right now. I need to stay focused on this murder. If I don’t, there will be more deaths….I don’t just believe it, I know it. Now, can we give this a rest? Until Eliza and I return from Blister Creek, at least?”
A sigh from the other end. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Jacob. The pressure on both you and Eliza is growing too great to resist. But it’s not like you don’t have options. There are three acceptable choices. All three men have at least one daughter on the table.”
On the table? The talk of trading girls like so much livestock was repellent….(pp.123-24)

While Jacob acts the part of a true believer, attending church and accepting priesthood assignments, he has questions and doubts about polygamy and the direction his church is headed. His doubts color the way he treats those around him and the way he views what is happening in and around the tight-knit community. He explains to Eliza, as only an older brother can:

“It’s a smallish God that worries about lost car keys. Either He’s oblivious or He’s more concerned with minutiae than the big picture. Let’s see, help Brother Roberts find his car keys or prevent the Indonesian tsunami. Tsunami, car keys. Hmm. What will it be?”
“God doesn’t tamper with free agency. He can’t stop every bad thing from happening.” (p.4cool

And bad things do happen to the residents of Blister Creek. First the opening murder, then plots to overtake church leadership. Stories of abuse and attempted rape are scattered here and there throughout the novel, graphic details providing insight into the evil hearts of jealous, power-hungry men and outcast young adults. Kidnapping, fraud and drugs also make their way into the plot. And what drives these men to nefarious deeds?

The goal, Kimball had told him, was the redemption of Israel. The church had grown weak and complacent. The Lord demanded sacrifice, change, striving. Nothing less would bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. The Lord had chosen an imperfect vehicle to bring about this redemption. The Lost Boys. The outcasts. (p.8cool
Jacob and Eliza work together to uncover the problems in Blister Creek. As far as Jacob is concerned, Eliza has things more important to do than be interviewed and ogled by potential husbands. Because she is a woman, she can move freely among sister wives and children, and she finds opportunities to uncover secrets others cannot access:

It was too good an opportunity to pass up. Stephen Paul had given something to Manuel and Eduardo, and they had put it into their unlocked truck. Jacob would have been down there at once to rifle through the papers and see if it had anything to do with their investigation. Eliza must do the same.
Deep breath. Must move quickly.
Eliza stepped outside to a gust of hot air off the desert. She stood in the shade of the barn and looked around, but saw no one. Voices came from the far side of the house. The men would be in the shed now.
The F-150 sat on the concrete slab. Its engine ticked as it cooled. They’d rolled down the windows so as not to turn the cab into an oven. It would be easy enough to step up and grab the folder without opening the door. (p. 185)

Her motivation to solve the murder is great, as it appears at least one of the men destined to be her husband may be involved in the plot, putting her safety at great risk should things unravel. If the murderer isn’t found out before her wedding day, she might end up sealed to him for time and all eternity.

Her quick mind and desire to do the right thing – even if that means sacrificing her family – make a difference. She gets herself out of several scrapes, including the climactic one that follows her first visit to the temple where the initiatory and endowment ordinances are described in detail and quoted from freely. Here in the endowment rooms, she discovers why her brother was so sure the killings were done by insiders, and as this knowledge dawns within her, she struggles with all that implies.

This first novel ends a bit abruptly, leaving a number of loose ends waiting to be tied up in sequels. The characters are nicely developed, though, and readers will cheer for the “good guys” and appreciate the fates of the “bad guys” and wonder what happens to the “ones who got away.” Perhaps Jacob will come to terms with his doubts. Perhaps Eliza will find a way to be fully integrated into a Zion family as wife and mother. But while some Lost Boys have been caught, others are on the run still, continuing their search for justice and acceptance by whatever means necessary. And the sect itself still needs to resolve the problems of inter-marriage and the graying of its leadership.

As a suspense/thriller mystery, "The Righteous" is a page-turner with characters complex enough to wrestle with questions about living in a patriarchal, polygamous society in the 21st century. Occasional philosophizing adds depth to characters who often get short shrift in this genre. Wallace takes a page from Stephen King, using descriptions of violence strong enough to upset in a way violence should, but leaving enough unsaid to allow imagination to fill in the gaps (or not). LDS readers may find the inclusion of pre-1990 temple ceremonies troubling, but perhaps not as disturbing as the descriptions of penalties applied.

Although Wallace is careful to distinguish between mainstream LDS and his fictional sect, non-LDS readers might find themselves bogged down in some religious details and miss subtle distinctions. Readers hoping to find all loose ends tied up neatly at the end of the book will be disappointed, and some might find themselves frustrated at a few almost-unbelievable plot points, but most who make it to the end will likely find themselves eager to pick up the next volume in the series to find out what happens to Jacob, Eliza and everyone else.
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