Sunday, April 1, 2018

A review of The Sound of Gravel, by Ruth Wariner...

Back in 2007, my husband Bill told me about Irene Spencer's book, Shattered Dreams.   It was about being one of many wives to a polygamist.  It was in Spencer's book that I first heard of Colonia LeBaron, a Mormon polygamist colony in Mexico started by the LeBaron brothers, who were all excommunicated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for teaching and practicing plural marriage.

There was a time when mainstream true believing Mormons practiced polygamy, but they were forced to abandon plural marriage when Utah became a state.  Some church members didn't want to give up polygamy and started their own Mormon offshoots.  Colonia LeBaron is one of the better known of the Mormon fundamentalist groups that broke off from the mainstream church founded by Joseph Smith.

Irene Spencer was married to Verlan LeBaron.  She was the second of Verlan LeBaron's wives and bore thirteen of his 58 children.  She died March 12, 2017 in Mexico.

This morning, I finished reading The Sound of Gravel, a 2016 memoir written by Ruth Wariner, who is one of Verlan LeBaron's nieces.  Ruth Wariner's mother, Kathy Wariner, was married to Joel LeBaron, who was one of Verlan's brothers.  She was Joel's fifth wife.  Joel LeBaron was the head of Colonia LeBaron and he had many rivals, including his younger brother, Ervil, who'd had a falling out with Joel.  On August 20, 1972, when Ruth Wariner was just three months old, Ervil had two of his followers murder Joel LeBaron.  Ruth was the 39th of Joel LeBaron's 42 children.  Follow the link for Wariner's own explanation of the history behind Colonia LeBaron.

Ruth Wariner's mother, Kathy, eventually remarried, becoming the second wife of a man named Lane.  Lane had several wives, all of whom were having his babies.  Kathy had four children with Joel LeBaron and another six with Lane.  Ruth grew up tending to her younger siblings, as if she was also their mother.  Some of the kids in the colony had severe disabilities, including Ruth's sister, Meri, who eventually died.  The family was extremely poor and lived on food stamps.  They would take regular trips into the United States to use them at grocery stores near the border.  Lane would also work in the United States to earn money to support his ever growing family.

Lane was a horrible man.  He was cruel and abusive to his wives and children and he exploited the children Kathy had with Joel LeBaron.  The lifestyle in the colony was difficult because they were so desperately poor.  There was little emphasis on schooling, even (and perhaps especially) among the really bright kids.  As one of Kathy's eldest kids, Ruth was called upon to protect and nurture her mother's children as she was herself growing up.

I am a sucker for a good memoir, especially one about "fringe religions".  Mormon fundamentalism is definitely among the fringiest of the fringe religions.  I noticed Wariner's books got good ratings on Amazon and, having just read Educated, by Tara Westover, who also grew up fringe style Mormon and off the grid, I was game for another good read.  I noticed a few similarities between Westover's book and Wariner's, although Westover wasn't in a polygamous family.  In both families, there was abuse and poverty.  Both families involved members who wanted to live free of government interference, although Wariner's family was willing to exploit social welfare programs in the United States, while Westover's family avoided all contact with the government.

I was also attracted to Wariner's book because she is exactly one month older than I am.  I remember what life was like for me in the 80s.  Ruth Wariner did have some exposure to some of the pop culture of that era.  Indeed, in Colonia LeBaron, there was even dancing and drinking of alcohol.  Of course, Ruth was a child taking care of children and was too busy to really get to be a teenager.  When I think about how difficult it was for me to be a teen, I can't help but realize that Ruth Wariner had it so much harder than I ever could.  And yet, she still manages to inject some hope and love into her writing.  It doesn't sound all bad to be growing up in a polygamous colony.  She did have a lot of love for her siblings, cousins, and other relatives.

When she was fifteen years old, Ruth Wariner suddenly became orphaned when her mother, one of her brothers, and one of Kathy's sister wives' brothers died in a freak accident.  When Kathy Wariner died, left behind three very young children, the youngest of whom was only five months old and was being breastfed at the time of her mother's very sudden, tragic death.  Ruth had told her mother that Lane was sexually abusing Ruth and her mother had made sure he stayed away from Ruth and the other kids.  But when Kathy died, that protection was gone.  When Ruth determined that Lane was victimizing Kathy's other kids, she decided she had to act.  I would have been interested in reading more about what it was like to reintegrate into American society and how she managed to help raise her mother's children to be functioning adults.

To be honest, I think there's another book in Ruth Wariner's story.  Ultimately, The Sound of Gravel is about what it was like for her to grow up in a polygamous Mormon cult in Mexico.  It's not until the end of the book that she escapes with her siblings.  The escape was orchestrated by Ruth's eldest brother, Matt, and his first wife, Maria.  There's not much information about the escape itself or the aftermath of it.  Instead, readers get a long buildup to what caused her to make the brave decision to leave.

Ruth Wariner is clearly very resilient and resourceful.  She earned her GED and went on to finish college and graduate school.  She was a high school Spanish teacher for years.  The Sound of Gravel is her first book, but it's been very well received.  She is now a happily married writer, speaker, and small business owner in Oregon and stays in touch with her siblings.

I really enjoyed Ruth Wariner's book, even if parts of it were infuriating.  Her stepfather was truly an evil bastard.  But what a gift Ruth Wariner was to her siblings, whom she saved from abuse and a poverty.  I highly recommend The Sound of Gravel, especially for those who enjoy true stories.  Just be prepared to be shocked and horrified more than a couple of times.



2 comments:

  1. I haven't read Ruth Wariner's book, but I read SHATTERED DREAMS when I was about fourteen, I think. Those LeBarons were a vicious bunch. Two of the women (Ervil's wives, I think) disguised themselves up as men and killed Dr. Allred, who was head of one of the slightly less wacked -out polygamous groups, although they're all wacked out.

    One thing I recall really bothering me about Irene Spencer's story was when, on the day she left her family to be married to LeBaron, her father gave her something like $10 or $20 to buy a new pair of shoes for her wedding, back when that amount of money was worth considerably more than it is now. (In THE CAT IN THE HAT COMES BACK, I recall that a big deal was made of the cat getting red gunk all over Dad's ten-dollar shoes. Matthew and I thought that was hilarious when we were little, because even we knew that ten bucks would no longer buy a decent pair of shoes. ) Irene wanted a pair of pretty shoes, but LeBaron took the money Irene's dad gave her for shoes, picked out a cheap pair of men's shoes for her, and kept the change for himself. It seems funny to me now that of all the horrible things the LeBarons did with child brides, murder, and everything else, the shoe thing would have bothered me the most.

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    1. I remember reading about how she was forced to make cheese.

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