Reviewed by: BigAl
Approximate word count: 80-85,000 words
Availability Kindle: YES Nook: YES Paper: NO
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Michael Wallace’s biography on Amazon is rife with teasers that leave you full of questions. He has had some strange experiences and jobs. I want to ask him, “Why did you eat fried guinea pig?” What kind of job requires milking cobras for their venom? How did you end up smuggling refugees out of a war zone and where did that happen? The biography does say he welcomes email from readers. Maybe I should ask him. He has eight books currently available, one a sequel to The Righteous, with another sequel nearing completion. He also has a blog you can view here.
A murder in a Utah polygamist enclave has leaders of the fundamentalist sect concerned. They call on medical student Jacob Christianson, a sect member from Canada, to investigate. Assisted by his sister Eliza, Jacob discovers a plot that goes well beyond murder.
Layton Green’s thriller, The Summoner, was among the earliest books I reviewed for BigAl’s Books and Pals. One of the things that set it apart was the setting in Zimbabwe. The differences in culture as reflected in the book enhanced what I got from reading it. It was more entertaining, because predicting the storyline was more difficult, and at least slightly educational, as I learned about Zimbabwe. Of course this assumes the author’s depiction of those parts of the story were accurate. (I’ve assumed they were based on information in an author’s note about spending significant time in the country while writing the book.)
Many of our readers from the U.S. and, I suspect, many of those who are not, are familiar with U.S. culture and norms. However, most of you will find the setting for The Righteous as foreign as I did Zimbabwe. Those who have seen the HBO show Big Love are a possible exception. The Righteous takes place in a fictional town in Utah, not unlike the fictional town where Big Love takes place. (I have not seen this HBO series, but have discussed it extensively with my daughter who has seen every episode.) The residents of the town in the novel are practitioners of a fictional religion that is a fundamentalist offshoot of the Mormon Church; also, the same as on the HBO show.
The part of the story that makes it a thriller is unique. Although the concept behind the thriller portion of the plot could work anywhere where a group of people feel they are God’s chosen or better in some way than everyone else, this setting works especially well. Some of the beliefs of the fictional religion (based on actual Mormon beliefs and practices from the past) are integral to the story. I’m hesitant to say anything more specific about the plot lest I let a spoiler slip. I’ll say that as a fan of thrillers I found that portion of the story more than satisfying.
However, what sets The Righteous apart is the accuracy of the depiction of both the Mormon Fundamentalist culture and beliefs. Since religion, along with politics and sex, are the touchiest subjects there are, I should give a few more disclaimers before proceeding.
Mormon fundamentalist sects are not Mormons anymore than Lutherans are Catholics. The relationship between the two and the formation of the fundamentalist churches are much the same as in Protestant religions. The fictional religion depicted here has beliefs that are very much like the mainstream Mormon Church, with a few noteworthy exceptions. The most significant difference is the acceptance of polygamy and the beliefs of the fictional church that are in place to support and reinforce this practice (arranged marriages and pushing single males of a certain age out of the community). It has been more than a hundred years since the mainstream church abandoned the practice of polygamy. I believe a few other beliefs and practices depicted in the novel are no longer the official policy of the mainstream church. The mainstream church has changed over time, albeit extremely slowly — the fundamentalist sects, not so much. That is what makes them “fundamentalist.”
Last, I should confess that I spent my life until my late teens attending the mainstream Mormon Church, much of that time in Utah, so I’ve also had exposure to and experience with the fundamentalist sects, their members, and beliefs. I’m knowledgeable enough to evaluate the accuracy of what is depicted, while hopefully far enough removed to not be overly sensitive to areas where the religious practices might come off as strange or backward.
Finally, I’ve covered my rear and can return to discussion of the book, The Righteous, by Michael Wallace for those who have forgotten. Often Mormons and Mormon fundamentalists as they appear in fiction or non-fiction books, movies, or TV shows are caricatures, accurate as far as it goes, but mainly making an appearance to get a laugh. Where a character is more complex writers often get something significantly wrong, whether on purpose (taking literary license for a better story), or ignorance. Although the cliché about truth being stranger than fiction might not apply in this case, the truth is strange enough.
Wallace gets everything right. His characters are realistic. They talk the way a devout Mormon or Mormon fundamentalist would talk. They think how they should think. With the exception of those actions directly related to the plot discussed in the description, they act the way they would act. I could even imagine someone from this environment straying from the actual beliefs of their religion in the way those involved in this storyline do. When Jacob Christianson is questioning some of the practices of his religion, it is very much like what others raised in this environment commonly go through. Although he is tight lipped about it, I’m convinced that Wallace has a background similar to mine. That’s the only explanation I have for his getting even the little things so authentic.
There are some terms used that I believe are specific to Mormons and offshoot religions that might not be familiar to most people. “Free Agency” and “still small voice” are two I noticed. I think the meaning of these terms and any others will be easy to understand from the context. If they aren’t, there is an easy solution. Find a Mormon or flag down a Mormon missionary and ask them. They’ll be more than happy to explain, but consider yourself forewarned — you may never get them to leave.
Devout Mormons may take exception to the depiction of parts of what they consider sacred and secret temple ceremonies. Although I can’t unequivocally vouch for their accuracy, from what I have pieced together over the years they appear to be authentic.
No Significant issues.
Rating: ***** Five stars