Desert Wives

by Betty Webb

Published by Poisoned Pen Press

2003, 302 pages

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Divine Command

Reviewed by Caroline Cummins


Journalist Betty Webb, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, has a great love for the harsh landscape, arid climate and complex cultures of the American Southwest. In her two Lena Jones mystery books thus far, Webb does an excellent job of making the reader feel the red rock dust and breathe the stultifying heat of the desert. And she makes a commendable effort at portraying the often-awkward interactions between the local whites, Native Americans and Chicanos. But sometimes the complexities prove overwhelming, as in her second Jones novel, Desert Wives.

In Webb's previous Lena Jones outing, Desert Noir (yes, there is a titular theme here -- the next planned Jones tale is called Desert Shadows), this policewoman-turned-private investigator found herself probing a murder in Scottsdale's posh art-gallery world. Desert Wives takes the P.I. out of the familiar urban confines and drops her down in the bizarre desert realm of Mormon-associated polygamist compounds along the Arizona-Utah border, where she tries to save a young girl from a forced marriage, prove the girl's mother innocent of murder, and generally overhaul the community's entire culture. This last is not an easy task, and not one, unfortunately, that Webb handles with the nuanced depth it deserves.

Polemical novels aren't known for being friendly reads; the righteous anger of their authors tends to make all other literary considerations bow down before it. Webb has plenty to be angry about: the social, psychological and physical abuse common in polygamous religious communities (not to mention the organized financial fraud) is well-documented. And that fact in itself seems to have fired Webb's outrage: If even The New York Times covers the continuing scandal of polygamy, why aren't Americans doing more to eradicate it? Writing a fictional story with the dual aim of capturing the imagination and inspiring a reform movement isn't a bad idea. (John Gates tried the same thing, if less ardently, with his 2001 novel, Sister Wife, which centered on the prosecution of a notorious Utah polygamist.) But because fiction allows for greater subtlety and complexity than journalism, it's a poor novel that doesn't at least strive for those standards.

As it is, Desert Wives' polygamist compound, Purity, comes off as an extremely vivid cartoon. The children who live there are uniformly earnest and sincere, if misguided. Their mothers, old before their time due to the constant demands of child-bearing, are uniformly sullen, jealous, fearful and brainwashed. Their men (to get around the law, most women are legally divorced from their husbands but live with them as concubines) are uniformly pompous, sanctimonious, brutally sexist and casually lustful. Sex and money are the men's chief interests, disguised under cover of religious concern. There's hardly a self-reflective soul among them. And that makes it difficult to think of them as real people.

Lena Jones, on the other hand, is a much more dynamic character. Sure, she's often drawn with a wildly excited hand -- as a child, she was abandoned on the highway with a gunshot wound to the head, abused by her foster parents, and saddled with a dramatic caseload of paranoias and obsessive habits -- but she's energetic, wry, tough, compassionate and aware of her shortcomings. She's a woman with her own personal mysteries to unravel, and it's hard to blame her for occasionally finding her own problems more compelling than the situations she's hired to resolve.

In Desert Wives, Jones lets her detective skills slide while her outrage at the abusive culture of Purity takes over. Going undercover as a new wife from the Outside, Jones can't help showing her disgust at nearly every aspect of the community's ways, from wearing old-fashioned granny dresses in the desert heat, to squabbling with other wives over housework, to having to walk several paces behind her pretend husband. (That spouse, Saul Berkhauser, is a fellow Outsider who had joined Purity and then become disillusioned. He's the only sympathetic male in Purity, but he's on Jones' side, after all.) Jones' experiences in Purity, recounted in the first-person, allow for a thorough dissection of the community as cult.

After a tiff one day with Sister Ermaline, an intimidating wife, Jones is uncomfortable when she comes across 14-year-old Meade Royal. The very devout Meade is one of the many sons of Prophet Solomon Royal, Purity's spiritual and political leader up until his recent -- and suspicious -- death by shotgun:

He smiled. "Would you like to join us in prayer, Sister Lena?"

I shook my head. "Thanks for the offer, Meade, but I'm persona non grata over at Ermaline's these days."

"Sona non gratis?"

"An unwelcome person," I translated.

"Oh, that's no problem, then. Sister Ermaline has to do whatever I say, so if you want to pray with us, you just come on."

What a sweet boy. But something he'd just said intrigued me. "Brother Meade, what do you mean, Sister Ermaline has to do whatever you tell her to do?"

His smile didn't change. "Because I'm a man, and Sister Ermaline is just a woman."

Not such a sweet boy.

Each person Jones meets seems crazier to her than the last, and by the time she uncovers Purity's darkest secret, locked away in a soundproofed room, the book feels less like an exposé and more like an episode of The X-Files. It doesn't help that, after building up a reasonable case against nearly everybody in Purity for the murder of Prophet Solomon, Jones decides who the real murderer must be while taking a shower. Divine revelation and baptism all at once? The irony is blissfully unintentional.

Webb's most thoughtful and galvanizing writing comes at the end of her book, in an author's note listing sources and giving a brief history of polygamy. (Utah outlawed the practice in 1896 as a condition of joining the United States, but estimates of today's underground polygamous population range from 30,000 to 50,000.) The real-life stories Webb mentions here are sadder than anything that came before: a state governor who ruined his career trying to stamp out polygamy; a desperate teenage girl handed over to a prospective husband by indifferent local authorities; a convicted polygamist living in jail while his wives survive on welfare. Such stories hint at the truly tragic novel Desert Wives could have been. | February 2003 


Caroline Cummins is a frequent contributor to January Magazine.