Book review: The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner

SO, I fell out of the habit of book reviewing the last several months, what with a cataclysmic election going down, plunging us into a whole new reality. I have several unfinished drafts saved, and in order to get them finally posted I’m going to try experimenting with different review styles, which will also serve as a much-needed boost to get me out of a pretty boring rut. But I’m going to start with a book I just finished.

I don’t often read memoirs, and I can’t remember who recommended this one to me, but I’m glad it came my way.

However, I seriously considered returning The Sound of Gravel at the start, as the writing struck me as basic and the subject no more than Fundamentalism 101, which has nothing new to tell me. But while the writing was never exceptional (though often vivid at the right moments), the intensity of the subject matter grew and grew, right to the horrific end. And it shot far past anything in my own experience.

The Sound of Gravel is the story of a Mormon polygamist cult founded in Mexico in the mid-20th century. The author grew up in it until she was fifteen, with frequent trips into the US. She was the third of her mother’s ten children (and thirty-ninth of her father’s forty-one children), several of whom had physical and mental disabilities. As the oldest non-disabled girl, her childhood was consumed with helping her mother care for all her younger siblings.

Even as someone who is no stranger to fundamentalism and religious zealotry, this memoir clarified a truth for me that I had never seen quite so clearly: these fundamentalist religious communities are not just shrines to the patriarchy, but they become the very worst sort of havens for enabling and defending monstrous men to do what they want without repercussion.

The most terrible example of this is Ruth’s step-father Lane, who repeatedly molests not just her, but many of her half-sisters. Ruth tells her mother, who does nothing, because she has been taught that her husband is her superior in all things and is literally on his way to becoming a god in the afterlife. Then the church’s religious leaders learn about the molestation, and after a lot of meetings (none of which included the affected girls), they decide he deserves nothing more than a two-year exile. This exile is later cut short, as they deem he’s suffered enough. Of course, his show of contrition for the elders in no way means he changes his behavior.

But that isn’t the extent of Lane’s criminal neglect and what he’s allowed to get away with. Despite a complete lack of electrical certification, he wires their property, leaving live wires sticking out of the ground and charging the bare pipes of their shower. Ruth learned to always wear shoes in the yard, after receiving a shock on her bare foot while putting out the laundry.

But this literal death trap of a home leads to the story’s ultimate tragedy: Ruth’s young brother Micah and her mother (pregnant with her eleventh child) are electrocuted to death on a fence that never should have been electrocuted, but was due to improperly buried wires and a heavy rainfall.

Even after this calamity, the children were still at the mercy of their step-father, until fifteen-year-old Ruth realizes he’s also molesting her mentally disabled brother Luke. This horror pushes her to act, and she persuades her oldest brother to come down from the States and rescue her and her siblings out of Mexico, to their grandmother’s home.

It’s a stupendous tale, one that would have seem far-fetched in fiction. As non-fiction, it’s a harrowing reminder of the victims involved in the most scandalous cults, and how the separation of church and state, while important, can only go so far in protecting minors who grow up in these communities.




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