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  • Written by Judith Freeman
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  • Written by Judith Freeman
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A Novel

Written by Judith FreemanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Judith Freeman

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42743-4
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In 1857, at a place called Mountain Meadows in southern Utah, a band of Mormons and Indians massacred 120 emigrants. Twenty years later, the slaughter was blamed on one man named John D. Lee, previously a member of Brigham Young’s inner circle. Red Water imagines Lee’s extraordinary frontier life through the eyes of three of his nineteen wives. Emma is a vigorous and capable Englishwoman who loves her husband unconditionally. Ann, a bride at thirteen years old, is an independent adventurer. Rachel is exceedingly devout and married Lee to be with her sister, his first wife. These spirited women describe their struggle to survive Utah’s punishing landscape and the poisonous rivalries within their polygamous family, led by a magnetic, industrious, and considerate husband, who was also unafraid of using his faith to justify desire and ambition.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

The Execution

One

A wind was blowing that day, old and wintry and mean. It came up in the morning, arriving from the southeast, and by noon it had gained in force and shook the heaviest branches of the trees and caused them to saw back and forth with a low groaning noise. Patches of snow still lay on the hills, old grainy slubs nestled in crevices on the north-facing slopes and thinner white lines running in scallops along the northern ridges.

When he sat on his coffin, the wind ruffled his hair and lifted the flaps of his jacket and they fluttered like the wings of some small black bird clinging to his breast.

Meadowlarks broke into song occasionally, and the wind continued to blow in heavy gusts as more men arrived, riding singly down out of the hills, or coming in groups of two or three, like pale apparitions.

He could hear the sound of the water in the stream.

Where the cows had trod the muddy ground they left hoofprints the size of dinner plates and the earth had now dried and the path was left uneven and hard to walk. The wind made it unpleasant to be out of the shelter of the wagons and many of the men stood with their backs against the running boards or set their shoulders against the warmth of their horses.

In spite of the cold, it felt like spring would soon arrive. All the signs were present--the hopeful notes of the meadowlarks, the grass greening up in the meadow, and the patches of bare earth on the hillsides. There was a feeling some corner had been turned and winter was behind them now, even though the wind still held such bitterness. The sky, though not really overcast, was covered with a white film of clouds, thin and insubstantial, like a layer of gauze stretched over the palest blue eye, and this lent the day a muted feeling. It seemed like a time between seasons--not yet spring, though spring had officially arrived two days earlier, and no longer winter, though something of its recent chill still carried on the air. He noticed the photographer standing downwind of his portable tent and he also noticed how the tent billowed in the surging wind like a living breathing thing.

He could hear a hammering sound of a woodpecker working away at the trunk of a gnarled and misshapen cottonwood tree whose lower branches had grown so thick the main trunk had broken and the heavy limbs now bent to earth. All along the stream the spidery and tangled old cottonwoods had been stunted from drought years and grown more horizontal than vertical, and yet they had managed to hang on to the stream bank, sending out new shoots and new growth each year, shedding the heaviest of limbs to wind and the forces of gravity.

All morning the birds called from the east and the west sides of the stream and the silence seemed magnified by the pale and colorless sky, the dry brown hills, the ridges and north-facing canyons scalloped with the thinning snow. In another month the sedges would green up along the banks of the creek and the snow would be gone and the deer that bedded down here now would leave the meadow and begin working their way back up among the cedar-covered hills.

By June it would be so hot and dry the grasses would begin to dry out and the creek would fall, the once deep water lowering and eddying in pools deep enough to hold fish in the shadows.

They killed him before noon.

The wind was still blowing.

Both spring and winter were on the air.

He had been brought to this spot by the marshal who had befriended him during his long incarceration and who had been helping him maintain his spirits during his first trial, as well as his second.

He arrived about an hour before the actual execution and he appeared to be tired yet calm.

The firing squad was not visible. The five men were hidden behind the canvas cover in the back of a wagon drawn up before the man sitting on his coffin, and they fired their shots through an opening in the canvas.

Before that, however, before the shots were fired, he was allowed to converse with several men who had come to witness the execution.

His photograph was taken by the man who had been pacing near his tent and he asked the photographer to deliver a copy of his likeness to his remaining wives. When that request had been made and agreed to, he rose and said a few last words to the crowd that had assembled to witness his execution.

His voice broke only once and that was when he mentioned his wives and his children who, he said, would be left unprotected in this world.

A minister knelt with him and prayed.

He sat again on his coffin. He took off his coat and handed it to a young man standing nearby with the request that it be given to one of his sons. He said he could see no use in destroying a perfectly good jacket.

He was blindfolded but, at his request, his hands remained unbound.

When the blindfold was in place, he called out to his executioners in a strong and steady voice: Center my heart, boys. Don't mangle my limbs.

Five shots rang out, and then another five coming so close together they sounded like one slightly drawn-out explosion.

He fell back upon his coffin, dead.

Before his death and after, the birds fell silent.

The sun was the same metallic white as the sky, only brighter, far brighter.

The shots had pierced his heart and the blood flowed freely from the wounds in his chest and back. They laid him on the ground and removed the blindfold and someone thought to close his eyes. After a while the blood slowed and it no longer pulsed and gurgled but rather it came in sporadic and weak trickles.

He was placed in his coffin. His hands were crossed over his chest, the big work-reddened knuckles sticking up in hardened knobs. The photographer took one last picture of the dead man lying in the pine box and then the lid was nailed on and the coffin was loaded in a wagon. The wagon, pulled by a pair of white mules and driven by the marshal, lost no time in setting off, much to the disappointment of those in the crowd who would have preferred a longer look at the deceased.

The photographer was the last to leave the meadow. When the others had gone he stayed behind and developed his plates and then he packed up his camera and his Carbutt's Portable Developing Box, strapping everything onto his mule with an ease born of much practice. By then the light was falling, raking across the meadow in slatted bands of light and dark, and the wind had almost ceased. He took one last look around him before heading up the trail.

Nothing good ever happened here, he thought.

And nothing good ever will again.

It is a place forever now of death.

He knew that the man had died for his own sins, and he had taken on the sins of those around him and he had died for those too. He had died for a whole people: he had been made the goat, and there wasn't anyone the photographer knew who didn't believe that.

The marshal drove the body to Cedar City and delivered it to the sons, who set out the following morning for Panguitch, where they intended to bury their father. The woman who accompanied them could have been their mother, but she was not, though she had nurtured them often enough in the course of their short lives. They drove an open wagon, the two boys sitting up front on the wagon seat and the woman nestled in back next to the coffin. The wagon was drawn by two red mules that were related by blood as well as temperament. The worn trail rose up through the dense trees once it left the valley floor. There were hills all around. Hills covered in cedars and snow.

To the south the morning light was bright yet overcast. In among the cedars near the road, patches of snow lay clean and white against the red earth and already the sage and rabbitbrush looked a bright green. Where the sage grew up, the snow had receded, creating depressions and dark moist wells, as if the plants themselves, in all their newfound life, had radiated warmth and melted the snow around them.

On the right side of the road, where the bank sloped to the north, the snow clung to the rocks and ravines and in places had drifted to considerable depths.

They came up into the hills, the road a long slow ascending route past the stands of orange and maroon willows, and here the rabbitbrush had grown tall in places, almost as tall as the willows, and through a gap where the hills closed in before opening up again, the vista afforded a view of the wide valley and revealed a settlement. Through this gap the boys could see the farms stretching out from the little cluster of houses and the dark shapes of the animals in the fields. Everything presented such a peaceful scene against the backdrop of red cliffs and the dark cedar-covered mountains, with the snow-clad ridges of the Kolob Range stretching to the south. The clouds had drifted into hard smooth shapes, dense and white, with flat heavy bottoms. They looked like solid domed objects hanging in the sky.

The road crossed over the creek and the boys studied the brownish red water breaking over the rocks beneath the wagon wheels. Everything was red. Red or orange or some shade thereof--the water, the stream banks, the earth, and the rocks that rose up from the fresh greenness and the cedar-dotted slopes. All red, shades of rust and dried blood. Everywhere the snow was melting and trickling down the rich red earth. And everywhere the rock columns rose up and formed towers and pinnacles and other fanciful shapes.

There were ice falls in shadow and water flowing everywhere, red with the burden of the clayey soil.

The higher they rose the more the forest thickened. They passed into tall pines. Water oozed out of rock ledges. The snow around them grew deeper and deeper, and they came upon stands of silvery bare aspen and shining dark rocks slick with the water.

The air grew much colder, chilled by the heavy layers of snow now surrounding them. The boy who had charge of the mules said, Whoa there, Sadie, whoa Sam, and drew the animals up, and the other boy sighed and said, Why'd you stop for? The first boy, the older of the two, said that he was cold and he asked his brother to pass him one of the blankets folded in the back and the boy did so. They both wrapped themselves in brightly colored Navajo blankets and then the oldest boy clucked to the mules and they dug in, their hooves gaining purchase against the steep, gravelly road.

Later on they stopped to let the mules rest. The boys got out of the wagon and stood looking up at some spires of red sandstone surrounded by dark pines. Far below them they could see a place where the mountain formed an amphitheater with sheer walls on three sides and out of this great bowl rose dozens of twisted rock spires. The spires stood like figures in a play, wrapped in cloaks of orange and red, all enclosed within a hard stage. Hundreds of crows were flying in circles above the spires.

Look at that, the older boy said to his brother.

I am looking, he replied.

I mean all those black birds.

They're crows not blackbirds.

I know they're crows. I just meant their color.

If you knowed they were crows how come you didn't just say crows?

Give it up, would you? the older boy said and walked away.

During the stop the woman did not leave the wagon but sat with one hand upon the coffin and the other balled into a fist in her lap, her dark eyes looking straight ahead and her mouth drawn into a somber, fixed frown, but as the boys prepared to set off again she asked them to wait and climbed down from the wagon and walked into the woods. She came back shortly and took up her place beside the coffin again and they moved on to the sound of hooves clattering against rock.

The higher they climbed the farther behind them they were able to put the valley they had just left and all its cruel events, and for this they were grateful. When they broke out onto the level at Webster's Flat they let the mules rest again and this time they all left the wagon and sat upon some dry logs and ate the food they'd brought with them.

The sky doesn't get any bluer, the older boy said at one point in order to break the silence. He gazed up through the trees, and his brother and the woman gazed up also, though neither made any comment.

When they had finished eating, the younger boy made a few snowballs and threw them one by one at the stump of a lightning-struck pine, missing it each time, and the older boy, watching from a distance, laughed and told him he was a bad shot just as one of the balls hit its mark.

Up where the pines began to stunt he pulled the mules over again and climbed down to relieve himself. Now the air was very cold. They had almost reached the summit. He stood facing south then turned out of the breeze so the wetness wouldn't blow back upon him. The mountain dropped away sharply. It did not descend at once to the desert floor but rather rolled away in plateaus and ridges, pine covered and falling away from him and the pine and the aspen were intermingled, spread out evenly over the slopes except in the places on the bare ridges and where little meadows created openings in the trees. He could see the line where the snow ended. He could see a butte in the distance, shaped like a house that stood solitary, backed up against the valley, so that what he saw now, what he was seeing, were the backs of the peaks he had looked at driving north yesterday toward Cedar City, when he had left the settlement. No time seemed to have passed since then and yet he was here, with his brother, and with the woman who was not his mother, and with his dead father. That was his father in the box in the wagon, he reminded himself, as if this was something he might have forgotten.


From the Hardcover edition.
Judith Freeman|Author Q&A

About Judith Freeman

Judith Freeman - Red Water

Photo © Anthony Hernandez

Judith Freeman is the author of four novels—The Chinchilla Farm, Set for Life, A Desert of Pure Feeling, and Red Water—and of Family Attractions, a collection of short stories. She lives in California.

Author Q&A



Can you tell us a little about your background and perhaps what inspired you to write about the early Mormon settlers, and in particular, the Mountain Meadows Massacre?

I was born in Ogden, Utah and raised in a large Mormon family of eight children. Mormonism permeated every part of my childhood---a culture as much as a religion. My parents were very devout believers. My father was also something of a liberal thinker, one of the few registered Democrats in a place full of Republicans, and he liked to talk politics and the state of the world over dinner. So even though I imbibed religion with my mother’s milk, I acquired a fondness for lively intellectual inquiry from my father. There were few books in the house, however, except religious books---faith-promoting stories about pioneers and , of course, The Book of Mormon,. My ancestors came from Cornwall, Mormon converts who settled parts of Arizona, Utah, and Idaho in the mid-l9th century in the first wave of Mormon colonists. .

Like many Mormon girls, I married young, at the age of seventeen, and by the time I was eighteen, I had a son. When I was twenty-one, I was divorced. But around this time I discovered literature and I began reading---Willa Cather, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence---and I decided this is what I wanted to do: I wanted to write, to give expression to my own experience rooted in this world. By that time, I had left the church as well as the place where I grew up. I really didn’t publish my first book, a collection of stories, until many years later, after I’d raised my son. I’m a self-taught writer. I feel that I taught myself to write by reading novels I admired.

I never imagined myself writing a novel set in the l9th century until I came across a book about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, about six years ago, in a bookstore in Port Townsend, Washington. I had heard almost nothing about this massacre when I was growing up. It was a shadowy, never-spoken-about affair. The story grabbed me. I wanted to try to understand that kind of institutional violence and fanaticism---how could such good and decent men be persuaded to commit such butchery?

There was also this: My great-grandfather was a friend of John D. Lee’s. I kept coming across the names of my own relatives in the story. Another ancestor was Brigham Young’s Indian interpreter and played an interesting, albeit off-stage, role in the events leading up to the massacre. So the story had immediacy for me. It became irresistible to me.


John D. Lee was the actual man tried, found guilty, and executed for the massacre. Are Emma, Ann, and Rachel based on historical figures as well?

Yes, they were actual wives of Lee---three of his nineteen wives. I was able to locate the diaries and writings of these women, which proved very helpful. For instance Ann, who was only thirteen when Lee married her, wrote a memoir late in her life called “My Life with a Saintly Devil.” It’s a remarkable document, and even if only half of what she says is true, it sheds a very different light on early Mormonism.


Polygamy has been in the news recently with the trial of Tom Green, charged with and found guilty of having five wives. The public was fascinated by pictures of Mr. Green surrounded by his wives and twenty-five children, and with the courtroom tales of wives confessing their love and devotion to him. RED WATER gives us a look at polygamy from inside one Mormon family. What traditional notions of polygamy and Mormonism do you confirm and/or challenge in the novel? Through the course of writing RED WATER, did your views on polygamy change or evolve?

First of all, there was polygamy in my own family. My great-grandfather spent six months in the Yuma Territorial Prison for refusing to give up one of his wives. This was in the l890’s, after polygamy had been outlawed. When he was released, he simply went back to his two wives and led a good life, later becoming one of the first state legislators in Arizona. When I was growing up, a picture of him in his striped jail uniform always sat on display. There was no shame in having a jailbird for an ancestor. In fact, we felt a certain pride.

In writing RED WATER, I came to see polygamy in a somewhat different, less romantic, light. While researching the book, I realized that only a certain elite group of Mormons were allowed to take multiple wives. That the bestowing of wives---gaining permission from the authorities---was a kind of reward system for good service to the church. I also became more aware of the sexual predation involved. That’s a strong term, but how else to describe the fact that all these old geezers were allowed to marry such young girls who really weren’t old enough to have much say in the matter? Growing up we were taught that polygamy had been a holy institution, a Divine Principle, an edict from God for the betterment of man. Well, men are men, religious or not, and sex played a bigger part in this idea of “multiple wives” than I think people have admitted. I find the Mormon culture a highly sexual culture, lusty in spite of the veneer of primness. There’s a kind of precocious sexiness and I think this is a residue of the early polygamous culture.


You paraphrase the Book of Mormon quote, “It is better that one man should perish than a whole nation dwindle in unbelief,” in RED WATER to explain Brigham Young’s sacrificing of Lee. You also imply that the Mormon Church and Young condoned the massacre, hid the evidence and later to quiet the masses, arranged a guilty conviction that led to the execution of Lee. Does the Church today admit their involvement in this embarrassing historical incident.

I’m afraid the Church still insists on fudging on its part in the killings. The current leader has been quoted as saying it was simply the work of a bunch of “local fanatics.” At least he didn’t resort to saying what was claimed for a long time, which was, “The Indians did it.” It seems people still can’t tell the truth about this thing. Even the monuments---and there have been several erected at the site----just say more or less, a bunch of people died here in an unfortunate massacre in 1857. Not one marker has ever said who did it. That’s for you to guess. Unfortunately most peoples’ first guess is, oh, Indians must have done it. The obfuscation on the part of the church, the state, all agencies that have had a hand in putting up those markers, really annoys me. But perhaps the site itself will demand justice: one recent marker, a rather large, ugly slab that listed the name of every man, woman and child killed without saying who killed them, was completely destroyed in mud slides and rains a few years after it was erected. You really feel this place is haunted by dead souls when you visit the meadow. I just hope the new marker falls down, too, until they get it right by telling the truth. Then maybe those ghosts can rest. The Indians, incidentally, might like that, too.


Rather than simply recreating the life and death of John D. Lee, you tell the story from the viewpoint of three of his wives. Each part of the book assumes a different structure---Emma’s monologue; the third voice for Ann’s story; the diary entries of Rachel. What is the significance of the various narrative styles and the order?

I wish I had a really good answer for these questions, but I don’t. I work on intuition. I never outline a book. I feel my way into the story, and it took me a long time and a lot of patience to feel my way into this one. This was the most difficult book I’ve ever written. It took five years to complete. Ann’s story came first, the story of the horse thief, but I didn’t quite trust it. Then I found Emma’s voice, and she became my primary guide and led me back to Ann, who now seemed to fit. Rachel came last, and I relied on her husband’s daily diaries for a certain tone and many details. It’s the harshest section, but I wanted to try and tell the truth about the incredible difficulty of a woman---now a widow---alone in that impossible landscape, and a diary, filled with the mundane as well as her spiritual obsession, seemed the best way to do it.


Regarding the Indians, Emma states, “Generally speaking, the women fared better than the men.” Why? Could you also be referring to John’s wives.

The quote comes from an actual settler’s diary, so I’m guessing what the writer meant. But since Native women didn’t engage in warfare, nor did they hunt---two dangerous activities---I presume they suffered fewer injuries. Also, women of all cultures seem better at administering medicine and nurturing each other, an important skill on the frontier.

As far as John D. Lee’s wives, they certainly suffered incredible hardships and psychological trauma---they had to share his shame and the shunning, and later a life of exile---but they were spared the actual experience of the massacre, which haunted every man who participated in it until the end of his life. Nor were they the ones required to face a firing squad. In this sense, they certainly fared better.


From England, Emma brings one book, An Encyclopedia of Greek Mythology, given to her at age twelve by her mother, and carries it as she journeys west and moves from settlement to settlement. Why did you choose this book?

I think it chose me. The idea came to me that these “stories of multiple gods and goddesses” would suggest an exact opposite to the Mormon belief in one, male, god, absolute in his power and authority.


Red, the color, permeates your novel and not just the physical landscape. What is the significance of red in the novel? And secondly, what is the significance of water, and in particular red water, in the title? Why the inserted epigram about red?


I am hesitant to try to decode my own metaphors and symbolism, but I will say this: one of the bloodiest tales in all of Western history lies at the heart of RED WATER. Obviously, the color red suggests this blood, the blood of the innocent victims, including all those children (over fifty children were killed in the massacre). Like the wine of the Catholic sacrament, meant to symbolize blood, this is the original red water. Red is also truly the color of the land in southern Utah, a kind of other-worldly landscape. And, as the C.K. Chesterton quote at the beginning of the book suggests, red is the strongest color in the spectrum---“the highest light” and “the place where the walls of this world of ours wear the thinnest and something beyond burns through.” The truth is that while writing this work I felt myself transported to another place, where something beyond did indeed burn through. The voices of three women came to me from another century, as if the walls dividing time, and my own sense of being a separate individual, had dissolved.


You’ve published four other books, Family Attractions, The Chinchilla Farm, Set for Life, and A Desert of Pure Feeling. Are these also novels? Are they also based in history?

Only insofar as memory is an act of history. No, these books are all set in my life time, meaning more or less the last half of the 20th c. They are all fiction---the first a collection of stories, the last three novels. If there’s history to be found in them, it’s my own.


What’s next for Judith Freeman?


I’m thinking of a book I call “The Story of Bob,” about the death of my brother. He was my oldest brother, who died at nineteen, from bone cancer, when I was only eight. He’d dropped out of high school and joined the navy. He looked a lot like James Dean---incredibly handsome. In the navy, he spent time on ships in the South Pacific during the early l950’s, when they were conducting nuclear tests. He married an older woman from Columbia on a shore leave, then found out he had cancer, and died just after their baby was born. Recently, I’ve begun to wonder, was he one of those sailors who witnessed the atomic tests in the South Pacific, and did this have anything to do with his getting cancer? I’d like to research this, and write a kind of non-fiction book about Bob. It could be a way of writing a memoir but I could fool myself into thinking it was about my brother and not me. And I really would like to find out what happened to him.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“An unforgettable portrait of the unceasing labor, passion and danger of frontier life, recalling the best of Willa Cather.” —Los Angeles Times

“Freeman presents ravishing visions of the land, which becomes as much a character in her drama as the people she so vividly conjures . . . Gorgeous and galvanizing.” —Newsday

“[C]ompelling, vivid writing that is both compassionate and unflinching; Freeman has gotten under the skin of these three very different women and their milieu in a profoundly affecting way.” —The Seattle Times

“[R]evelatory. . . . [C]reates a vivid, believable picture of the high religious fervor and red-dust-covered hardships of the Utah frontier.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“Freeman renders the terrible beauty of this land and the flinty resolve of these people with great skill.” —The Washington Post

“Captures the mayhem of America’s westward expansion . . . An evocative tale of religious brutality and pioneer hardship set against an unforgiving landscape.” –Chicago Tribune

“Intense, charged with real feeling and electricity . . . Intelligent, complex prose will give readers a chance to reflect on the deeper meanings of love and faith and endurance.” –The Oregonian

“Engrossing. . . . Freeman eschews the tributaries of contemporary domestic life for the deeper and darker lake of the past. . . . Unforgettable.” –St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“The narrative soars . . . makes astute points about the almost indistinguishable similarities between faith and love.” –The New Yorker

“A powerful novel whose three narrators engage us so completely that we absorb their intricate history effortlessly.” –BookPage

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“An unforgettable portrait of the unceasing labor, passion and danger of frontier life, recalling the best of Willa Cather.” —Los Angeles Times

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Judith Freeman’s Red Water, a fully imagined historical novel that explores the mysteries surrounding early Mormon settlers in the west and one of the darkest chapters in their history, the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

About the Guide

Set in the harsh high-desert landscape of Utah in the 1870s, Red Water tells the story of John D. Lee, a Mormon elder and frontiersman, a man who wed nineteen women and was involved in the killing of more than one hundred men, women, and children on their way to California. Telling this story from the perspectives of three of Lee’s wives, Emma, Ann, and Rachel, Judith Freeman probes the ambiguities surrounding Lee. Is he “a saintly devil, a monster cloaked in righteous attire” [p. 84], as his critics claim, or is he, as Ann says, “a man of many talents—a trader and a salesman, a farmer and factory man, a miller and a healer, a leader and interpreter, a ferryman and a builder of houses and of the Kingdom of God” [p. 313]? That question lies at the heart of Red Water, the focal point around which the story turns. But the novel explores much more than whether or not Lee led the massacre of innocents at Mountain Meadows. Freeman succeeds brilliantly in getting inside the psyches of the women who live with, and sometimes love, John D. Lee. As they describe their relationships with Lee they also tell their own stories, stories of passion and loneliness, of submission and the assertion of their own powers, of life at what seemed the end of the earth. It is this vivid recreation of the Mormon frontier world, and the inner worlds of the women who were brought there, that makes Red Water so powerful.

With pointed relevance to many of the religious controversies in the world today, Red Water is both a brilliant historical novel and a cautionary tale for our time.

About the Author

Judith Freeman is the author of three previous novels—The Chinchilla Farm, Set for Life, and A Desert of Pure Feeling—and of Family Attractions, a collection of stories. She lives in California and Idaho with her husband, the photographer Anthony Hernandez.

Discussion Guides

1) Why does Judith Freeman title her novel Red Water? What significance does the color red acquire as the novel progresses? What role does the harsh Utah landscape itself play in the story?

2) Why does Freeman choose to tell the story of Red Water through three different points of view? In what ways are Emma, Ann, and Rachel different from each other? What does this multiple perspective add to the novel?

3) Emma says that she is “well aware that, to the uninitiated, to those who live outside the realm of our kingdom, our lives must appear unfathomable, or like a labyrinth, especially with regard to our marriage customs” [p. 55]. Is she right about this? How difficult is it to understand nineteenth-century Mormon polygamy? Does the novel succeed in making these customs more comprehensible to non-Mormon readers?

4) Why does Emma fall in love with John D. Lee? In what ways is their love both physical and spiritual? Why does Lee ask Emma to call him “Father”?

5) In describing John D. Lee’s relationship with his many wives, Emma says that “his authority was absolute, and yet in truth, over time I came to see how little control he had over his wives. Just as he couldn’t control the winds that reduced his cornfields to tatters or the rains that washed out his dams. We, too, were our own force of nature, and we required careful tending in order not to overleap our banks” [p. 65]. How do Emma, Ann, and Lee’s other wives assert their independence?

6) Ann says of John D. Lee: “He was the sort of man for whom no middle feeling existed. People either thought him generous and friendly and kindhearted, or shifty and power-hungry and dishonest” [p. 238]. Why does Lee arouse such disparate reactions?

7) Red Water is a historical novel, describing events that occurred over a century ago. How is this story of Mormons in the west, of their social and personal relations and of a massacre their leaders may or may not have planned, relevant to world events today? Are the Mormons in the novel guilty, as Ann claims, of committing horrible crimes “for the sake of . . . fanatical beliefs” [p. 317]?

8) At the heart of Red Water is a persistent and troubling question that is never fully answered: Was John D. Lee made a scapegoat for the massacre at the Meadows, and if so by whom? Was he responsible for some of the killings that day?

9) Why do the Mormons want to convert the Indians? What does Brigham Young imagine will become of the Indians one day? What does this belief suggest about how the Mormons interpreted the relationship between race and religion?

10) Red Water offers little in the way of a conventional plot to pull the reader along. What other means does Freeman use to arouse and sustain her reader’s interest?

11) Of the three wives given the fullest treatment in the novel, Rachel is the most devoutly religious. What do her journal entries reveal about the nature of her faith? How is she different from both Emma and Ann? In what ways does she represent both the strengths and the weaknesses of her religion? Is she, as she claims, Lee’s “one true wife” [p. 313]?

12) Near the end of the novel, as Rachel worries about Navajo raids, she thinks, “We are in the hands of the Lord and all things are promised to work together for the good of those who love and fear God, though why this did not save my husband’s life, I do not know” [p. 279]. What does her thinking here suggest about the problems of trusting in God’s will? What does the novel as a whole seem to suggest about the notion of God’s control of, and intervention in, human affairs?

13) What kind of man, finally, is John D. Lee? What are his good qualities? What are his flaws? What motivates his behavior—personal ambition and lust for both sex and power, or a driving spiritual vision and deep compassion for others? Does the novel decide these questions or leave them up to the reader?

14) Is it possible to tell what Freeman’s attitude is toward Lee, and the Mormons generally, as they are represented in the novel? To what extent should the novelist reveal or conceal her own moral or political stance in the telling the story? Should she simply tell the story, or should she subtly guide her readers?

15) What large questions does the novel raise about the relationship between religious freedom and federal law, personal conscience and social conventions, true faith and spiritual hypocrisy? Are the Mormons, and other groups like them both in America and abroad, persecuted religious minorities or dangerous fanatics?

Suggested Readings

Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows; Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation; Juanita Brooks, John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer, Scapegoat; Willa Cather, Death Comes to the Archbishop; A.B. Guthrie, The Big Sky; Paulette Jiles, Enemy Women; Halldór Laxness, Paradise Reclaimed; John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled; Kate McCafferty, Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl; Ann-Marie MacDonald, Fall on Your Knees; Peter Matthiessen, At Play in the Fields of the Lord; Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose; James Welch, Fool’s Crow.

  • Red Water by Judith Freeman
  • April 08, 2003
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Anchor
  • $16.00
  • 9780385720694

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