I grew up in Utah as a Mormon and heard about the Mountain Meadows Massacre (even visited the monument there once, when I was younger!), but I dismissed the whole affair as evil folks perverting the Gospel. Turns out that it wasn't quite like that. Freeman's book gives a possible fictional example of the complexities and genuine atrocities involved. Brigham Young's Blood Atonement doctrine was frightening.
Freeman's story highlighted for me not only the terrible crime that was committed in the name of God but also the great legacy of tragedy that plural marriage leaves behind. The problem of needing to impress and cling to a husband in order to achieve the highest degree of heaven sits all sorts of wrong with me. Salvation comes to depend—so very conveniently—on obeying the *husband* instead of on any sort of God or internal moral compass. The husband becomes the intermediary, and disobedience to him (or a leader) is disobedience to God. That's a recipe for disaster right there, folks. Very few legitimate checks and balances, and it shows in our history. Screwed up the generations of my own family too, actually, right on back to my great-great-great-great-grandfather and his five wives. Tons of heartbreak and confusion. Misery, separation, all involved left worse off than before. Many Mormon women still fear that if they're not good enough to/for their husbands in this life then those husbands will seek out other wives in the next, creating a culture of perfectionism and performance anxiety. Even the threat of plural marriage coming back again or being practiced in the afterlife is harmful. Still a form of control.
(A big side note: all of the reasons given for practicing plural marriage—the ones I heard as I grew up—turned out to be groundless. The censuses of the time show that there were actually more men than women, for example, thus negating the "take in extra women to protect and care for them because there aren't enough Mormon men around" reason. "Raising up righteous seed" was another reason put forward, and while from the man's perspective he may have had a lot of kids (John D. Lee had 56—who the hell can properly take care of 56 kids?), from a societal perspective there were actually fewer children overall and a less diversified and therefore less healthy gene pool. And as Freeman demonstrates in her book, righteousness in offspring was not guaranteed at all and many left or were forced to leave who wouldn't obey—in my mind, it's not a true Zion if you eject (and, ahem, castrate and murder) those who disagree with you. The righteous seed stuff also gets freaky when a few leaders, including Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, took other men's wives as their own. And didn't tell their wives about new wives, which also contradicts "the rules" in Doctrine & Covenants 132, which is pretty freaky itself. There are other terrible contradictions and manipulations that happened, but people can look into it for themselves. My point is that enough reasons have been put forward to explain this misogynistic tragedy, and they have been debunked with time.)
The story of Red Water follows Emma, then Ann, then Rachel. Jumping from one narrative to another was a little jarring (Emma was in first person, Ann in third, and Rachel through journal entries—interesting choices, I thought), but it held my interest until the last hundred pages of the book. I've driven through enough of the Utah wilderness that the wandering of one AWOL wife didn't capture my interest. The unknown previous owner of my used copy wrote other criticisms in the margins related to a few editing and word choice issues, but for me the weightiness of the topic overrode those things. There are sure to be scenes that are disturbing for Mormons to read, but I like that the story causes people to think through the day-to-day consequences of plural marriage and an unchecked us-versus-them mentality instead of making sweepingly grand, forgiving, and ignorant statements about it. Or saying that God's ways are mysterious and we just have to trust His leaders, even if they're wrong. If things don't make sense and they're still causing harm, they ought to be questioned.
But you can't question something until you understand the issues, so I recommend reading Red Water to get a feel for the time period and the people. I also highly recommend reading Todd Compton's In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, a biography written from the worldview of the wives involved, detailing their lives, their journals, their stories—the things you don't hear in Sunday School. Todd Compton is a member, so it's not like this is anti stuff. It's our history, and far too many people have never heard it.
Kudos to Freeman for taking on this challenge. And to Juanita Brooks for her original, honest research on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, even though she was ostracized for it.
P.S. John D. Lee, who admitted to his involvement in killing 120 men, women, and children, was reinstated posthumously as a member of the Church in 1961. This fact gives me the chills. And not the good kind.