Book review: The Polygamist’s Daughter, by Anna LeBaron with Leslie Wilson
Anna LeBaron is a daughter of Ervil LeBaron, the notorious polygamist Mormon cult leader whose sprawling family (she opens the prologue with, “At age nine, I had forty-nine siblings”) underwent a vicious divide as Ervil ordered the murders of those who questioned his leadership or defected from the cult.
Much of the family lived in Mexico while on the run from the Feds, including Anna, who was shuffled around between sister wives in less than ideal conditions and circumstances for a child to grow up in. Her own mother deflected all parenting decisions to the cult, often shirking her own responsibilities to her parents and grandchildren in favor of “praying about it”.
Ervil’s brother Joel LeBaron was also a leader of a polygamous sect, and his daughter Ruth Wariner published her exquisitely written and emotionally wrenching memoir The Sound of Gravel last year. Coming on the heels of Wariner’s haunting book, I couldn’t get to this one fast enough. They do make good companions reads, showing two sides of this warring, utterly misguided family.
What Anna went through in her life is unimaginable and bizarre, certainly confusing and troubling for any child. Her experiences were less heartbreaking and disturbing than her cousin Ruth’s, which makes this a lighter read (as far as such a term can even be applied to a child-of-a-polygamist-cult memoir). Like her cousin, Anna was failed by the majority of the adults who should have been protecting and role modeling her. Even those adults whose intentions were better were deeply flawed, troubled people, causing or forcing Anna to grow up much faster than others.
Her childhood consisted of things that no child should ever have to do, like dumpster diving for leftover food and donated clothes, and like others in her position, she shouldered the responsibility of caring for the younger children in the massive extended family when she was still at a very young age herself. Considering what she’s survived, there’s something immensely uplifting and positive about stories like hers, as she manages to triumph and carve out her own identity and successes despite the abnormal, impoverished upbringing that could easily wreck a person.
LeBaron’s writing is quickly paced; it’s hard to put the book down. Her storytelling is direct and forward, but the strong point is definitely more the story itself and less the writing quality. Often it feels like a lightly connected series of remembrances, with some longer anecdotes interspersed throughout. The content is interesting enough to propel the reader through, and maybe my expectations were too sky-high after The Sound of Gravel, which I admit is an unfair comparison. But I did find myself wishing for a little more narrative structure to tie it all together.
An emphasis is placed on LeBaron’s discovering and turning to God in her own way, outside of the confines of the cult’s religious beliefs. I didn’t like these portions, they actually made me somewhat uncomfortable. But she’s very clear and effective in expressing what these religious beliefs meant to her and how they helped her heal from her upbringing, so I understand their inclusion and importance in that sense. But it felt heavy-handed and almost disappointing, since she displayed such remarkable bravery, clear-headedness and perseverance that I’d have liked to see her give herself more credit for what she’s achieved instead of attributing it all to another branch of religion.
A readable and ultimately triumphant story of coming into one’s own despite an abundance of overwhelmingly bad decisions from the adults meant to give guidance and structure from childhood.
The Polygamist’s Daughter: A Memoir
by Anna LeBaron
published March 21, 2017 by Tyndale House Publishers
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.