Book review: Desert Wives by Betty Webb

Desert Wives
by Betty Webb
Lena Jones #2
Poison Pen Press, 2011; originally published 2002
Kindle format

Lena Jones is an ex-cop, now a private investigator in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has a sad past, being bought up in a series of foster homes, but is now an independent if nonconformist young woman with more than a few personal demons. Desert Wives begins with Lena hiding out in the desert just over the nearby Utah border, trying to help Rebecca, a 13-year-old girl, to escape from her father, who has in effect kidnapped her and taken her to the Mormon settlement of Purity so that she can marry the 68-year-old “prophet” Solomon Royal. Lena’s immediate task is successful, thanks to help from her partner Jimmy, but as they flee they come across the body of Solomon, who has been shot at close range.

Although Rebecca is reunited with her mother Esther, her ordeal is not over. Esther comes under suspicion for the murder of Solomon; if she’s arrested Rebecca’s father will become her legal guardian and can take her back to Purity. There, the girl will probably be married to another of the sect’s elders, so that her father can receive his reward of two 16-year-old girls who he will marry himself. With few options open to her, Lena decides to go undercover into Purity, posing as the second wife of Saul, a great-grandfather who is part of a group dedicated to helping young women escape from their awful lives, so that she can find out who really killed Solomon and hence keep Rebecca and Esther free of the Mormons’ clutches.

Desert Wives is a fast-paced novel told in a refreshing, no-nonsense style. For this reason, its gradual exposure of the ghastly horrors for girls and women of life in a Mormon sect are all the more effective for their straightforward presentation. Taking advantage of local laws (and building their settlement so that it crosses the Utah-Arizona state line), the elders have registered their own school and clinic so that children are isolated, indoctrinated from birth with the warped ideals of polygamy, by which a man ascends to the highest level of heaven according to the numbers of wives and children he has. Men often have more than ten wives, each producing a baby every year. Because polygamy is illegal, only the latest wife is married to the husband; the rest are divorced but live with him as “sister wives”, handing over their welfare benefits as single mothers. It is not uncommon for men in their 60s and 70s to marry girls as young as 16.

The main strengths of this brisk novel are twofold. First, the story is a shocking, ghastly set of revelations that become darker as the pages turn. If you don’t want to believe what you are reading (as I did not), there is an afterward in which the author describes some of her research and provides references for real-life cases that are as awful as some in the book. The exposure of a culture (the United States of America) whose laws not only allow but encourage this systematic brainwashing, abuse and medical tragedy is particularly strong: the author is not shy to make an explicit connection to the Taliban.

The second strength of the book is an enjoyable one (thankfully), which is the great sense of location and atmosphere, in the canyons, hills and deserts around the Pima country of eastern Arizona and nearby Utah (the images shown here are of Phoenician Canyon, Arizona (top) and an artist’s picture of Zion park, Utah). The author makes great use of her knowledge of her various locations, from the art tourists in Scottsdale to the rugged canyons, rainy scrublands and deserts surrounding Purity. The crime plot perhaps takes third place to these two themes, and for this reader the issue of whether Rebecca and other women would manage to leave Purity became more important than who did kill Solomon Royal. But even so, Desert Wives is a book well worth reading (and won’t take long; it is very short).

I thank Ken Mahieu for recommending this book to me. I purchased the Kindle edition as part of a publisher’s promotion. (I have not read #1 in the series but that does not seem to matter.)

Other reviews of Desert Wives: Reviewing the Evidence, Kirkus reviews, New York Times, Murder by Type.

From the author’s Wikipedia entry: “Much of Webb’s subject matter is controversial. “Desert Wives” and “Desert Lost” deal with the polygamy sects in Arizona; “Desert Cut” deals with female genital mutilation. One reviewer [Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times no less] commented that the content of “Desert Wives,” about ‘wholesale enslavement of women and rampant swindling of the state welfare system’ was ‘eye popping’ and if written as investigative journalism would be a contender for the Pulitzer Prize.”

Lisa’s Book Critiques: Betty Webb at Velma Teague library. (Covers the author’s work, including this book and series.)

About the book and the Lena Jones series at the author’s website.

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20 thoughts on “Book review: Desert Wives by Betty Webb

  1. Sounds well worth reading. It’s not my usual sort of book, but I think it is good to branch out once in a while, and this does sound intriguing. Thanks Maxine – I have added it to my wishlist.

    In doing so I noticed another edition has a quite unusual cover – a clutch of ghostly-looking brides – very interesting!

  2. Thanks for the review – I’m adding this one to my list. I had a wonderful trip to Utah and Arizona in 2008 and I found the whole area fascinating. I then went on to stay with some friends in Scottsdale. I’ll be interested to revisit the place mentally with this book.

  3. Maxine-this seems an interesting book. I think it was during the last Republican campaign to choose a presidential candidate that Mitt Romney, a Mormon, said he was in fact the only candidate who had only had one wife.
    In 1980 my ex-partner and I spent a fascinating morning being given a tour round the Mormon Temple in St George, Utah. We were obviously ideal candidates for conversion, and it took quite an effort to “escape” the soft music, beautiful pictures on the walls, and the very persuasive line of patter, about the Mormons had suffering great persecution in the past, and being family orientated…….

    • I would like to have seen them trying to convert you, Norman! Intersesting about Romney, don’t tell him about the sister-wife concept.

  4. I would believe it all, all of what is inside the book. Having seen the FLDS cults in these walled-in, locked up compounds here, where women dress in 1890s clothes, there are no newspapers or other news, no visitors, girls must marry men they are told to marry who are years older than they are; women are disciplined by their husbands; babies are tortured (yes, this happened in the Warren Jetts case), girls and women can’t make any choices about their lifes; and teen boys are kicked right off the compounds with nowhere to go (they’d be competition for the teenage girls, so they’re gone.) The horrors have been told here by women who escaped. An especially good incentive is when a young daughter is being forced to marry a guy in his 40’s, mothers say “time to go.” And what they talk about is really terrible for women, girls and those poor boys.
    I’d like to read this after I read Carolyn Jessup’s memoir of having fled with her children. These are very brutal cults with a lot of coercion, discipline of adults, isolation from society, and abuse of girls, etc. I bet this book is good. I’m not sure I want to read it now as I’m saturated in the tv specials about what happened in the last few years with the Texas LDS group.

    • Sounds horrific, Kathy. I hope you’ll like this book, as it told it like it was but did not dwell on stuff in that “loving” way that so many schlock merchants do.

  5. Oh wow this sounds good. Off to look for it. Somewhat OT: I did watch HBO’s BIG LOVE (first season only) that follows a man with his three wives and their seven children. I found it intriguing and I was curious about the lifestyle. Albeit this is television but I didn’t follow it after the first season was over when the conflict shifted to other things and got ridiculous in my eyes. I realize this is a bit different and I stay in Texas where the raid of the LDS group here made national news that Kathy D is talking about.

    • I saw some of that in the newspapers here, Keishon. This is a US publisher (poison pen) and they were making this (and other) title(s) very cheap in e-form in a promotional deal, so I hope it is still going.

  6. Maxine: Thanks for the excellent review. My thoughts turned to the issues arising in Canada from the decision to allow same sex marriages which overturned the traditional view of marriage being limited to one man and one woman. There was recently a case in British Columbia involving a fundamentalist Mormon sect asserting the principle that equality before the law means marriage is not limited to one spouse. At trial plural marriage was found unlawful. I think it will be difficult on appeal to justify that marriage is restricted to a single person. Where our society is going with marriage is far from clear to me.

    • Thanks, Bill, and that is a strange story. I always thought that legally one has to be married to one person at a time (in the West anyway), so it will be interesting to know the arguments in that appeal. To me, the gender issue does not seem relevant to the principle but obviously I am no lawyer.

  7. Have you read UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN by Jon Krakauer? It’s a true crime book about murders in a polygamist community, and it has a ton of background about Mormonism and its offshoots.

    • Thanks, Rebecca. I may check it out sometime, but for now I think I’ll take a rest from this particular subject! Desert Wives is an upsetting book, for sure, just because of its content.

  8. Maxine,
    Thank you for your thorough review of this title and the links you’ve provided. I’m definitely putting it on my list. As the NYT reviewer commented, I wish the author had written a nonfiction expose (accent on that final e), if only to bring this pattern of abuse out into the forefront of the media.

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

  9. One of Steven White’s Alan Gregory books deals with Mormonism and is revelatory about the goings-on internally within the inner walls of that religion. I don’t think it dealt with the plural marriage cult aspect. This is the only book of his that was so well-researched a bibliography is included.

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  11. Great review!

    The interesting thing is that the other day my daughters told me about a fascinating, but scary documentary about polygamous sects in Utah. Right after that I picked a random book in my kindle – this one. So I knew immediately that the theme was terribly relevant. And I am quite sure I have also read articles about it earlier (part of my job, probably).

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