First published in 2015
My rating: 4 out of 5
Image from Goodreads
The Short Of It:
The author's story of growing up in a Mormon polygamist colony was fascinating, disturbing and surprisingly well-written for someone who's not an author by trade, but I was left with many questions that I wished she had answered, and I wondered what exactly she hoped readers would take away from the book.
The Long Of It:
A shack in a dusty, impoverished rural Mexican settlement. No electricity or running water. Beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dozens of half-siblings. A mom who willingly shares her husband with several other wives. An abusive step-father. Religious fanaticism.
That's how Ruth Wariner grew up, in a tiny house full to bursting with nine of her full- and half-siblings in the Mormon polygamist settlement of Colonia LeBaron in Mexico, not far from the U.S border. Ruth's memoir details her unusual and hardship-filled upbringing -- as well as her escape from LeBaron at age 15 -- with honesty and aplomb, and her story makes for reading both interesting, heartbreaking, unsettling and infuriating.
The book is narrated by Ruth's childhood self, starting around age 5 and continuing up through her flight from LeBaron with her three young sisters in tow at 15. Telling a story from a child's perspective can be risky, but it really works here, and it was interesting to see how Ruth's views toward her family's lifestyle evolved as she matured.
What was missing for me was more insight into Ruth's thoughts now, decades distant from her terrifying run from LeBaron and her despicable step-dad, Lane. The book concludes with an epilogue and briefly mentions the fates of Ruth and her close siblings, but I wanted to know more about her views on religion and polygamy. At least one of her brothers carried on the polygamist tradition and I'm dying to know how she feels about that, and I want to know if she's still a member of the Mormon church (it's obvious from the epilogue that she's religious). I'm also very curious whether she thinks she would've left LeBaron at all if it weren't for Lane, his abuse and the way the colony reacted to it.
Despite the lingering questions I had, I enjoyed Ruth's memoir and found it to be well-written and gripping. And it gives readers an unflinching inside look at a polygamist sect, something we probably all wonder about when Mormon polygamists occasionally pop up in the news. What would it be like to share a husband? What on earth do the women get out of the arrangement? Why does the church encourage polygamy in the first place? How are all those babies taken care of? What would it be like to grow up in polygamist colony? (Many of the answers to those questions horrified and disgusted me.) "The Sound of Gravel" is about a lot more than that exposing the inner workings of Mormon polygamy, though. Things like survival, overcoming odds, courage, perseverance, forgiveness and love are the paramount themes in Ruth's tale, and I'm glad she decided to tell it.
P.S. There's an awesome photo gallery on Ruth's website that is super-helpful for putting faces to names.