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.