Books by Krakauer, Jon.

Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air. New York: Anchor Books, [1997] 1999. ISBN 0-385-49478-5.
It's amazing how much pain and suffering some people will endure in order to have a perfectly awful time. In 1996, the author joined a guided expedition to climb Mount Everest, on assignment by Outside magazine to report on the growing commercialisation of Everest, with guides taking numerous people, many inexperienced in alpinism, up the mountain every season. On May 10th, 1996, he reached the summit where, exhausted and debilitated by hypoxia and other effects of extreme altitude (although using supplementary oxygen), he found “I just couldn't summon the energy to care” (p. 7). This feeling of “whatever” while standing on the roof of the world was, nonetheless, the high point of the experience which quickly turned into a tragic disaster. While the climbers were descending from the summit to their highest camp, a storm, not particularly violent by Everest standards, reduced visibility to near zero and delayed progress until many climbers had exhausted their supplies of bottled oxygen. Of the six members of the expedition Krakauer joined who reached the summit, four died on the mountain, including the experienced leader of the team. In all, eight people died as a result of that storm, including the leader of another expedition which reached the summit that day.

Before joining the Everest expedition, the author had had extensive technical climbing experience but had never climbed as high as the Base Camp on Mount Everest: 17,600 feet. Most of the clients of his and other expeditions had far less mountaineering experience than the author. The wisdom of encouraging people with limited qualifications but large bank balances to undertake a potentially deadly adventure underlies much of the narrative: we encounter a New York socialite having a Sherpa haul a satellite telephone up the mountain to stay in touch from the highest camp. The supposed bond between climbers jointly confronting the hazards of a mountain at high altitude is called into question on several occasions: a Japanese expedition ascending from the Tibetan side via the Northeast Ridge passed three disabled climbers from an Indian expedition and continued on to the summit without offering to share food, oxygen, or water, nor to attempt a rescue: all of the Indians died on the mountain.

This is a disturbing account of adventure at the very edge of personal endurance, and the difficult life-and-death choices people make under such circumstances. A 1999 postscript in this paperback edition is a rebuttal to the alternative presentation of events in The Climb, which I have not read.

November 2007 Permalink

Krakauer, Jon. Under the Banner of Heaven. New York: Anchor Books, [2003] 2004. ISBN 1-4000-3280-6.
This book uses the true-crime narrative of a brutal 1984 double murder committed by two Mormon fundamentalist brothers as the point of departure to explore the origin and sometimes violent early history of the Mormon faith, the evolution of Mormonism into a major mainstream religion, and the culture of present-day fundamentalist schismatic sects which continue to practice polygamy within a strictly hierarchical male-dominated society, and believe in personal revelation from God. (It should be noted that these sects, although referring to themselves as Mormon, have nothing whatsoever to do with the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which excommunicates leaders of such sects and their followers, and has officially renounced the practice of polygamy since the Woodruff Manifesto of 1890. The “Mormon fundamentalist” sects believe themselves to be the true exemplars of the religion founded by Joseph Smith and reject the legitimacy of the mainstream church.)

Mormonism is almost unique among present-day large (more than 11 million members, about half in the United States) religions in having been established recently (1830) in a modern, broadly literate society, so its history is, for better or for worse, among the best historically documented of all religions. This can, of course, pose problems to any religion which claims absolute truth for its revealed messages, as the history of factionalism and schisms in Mormonism vividly demonstrates. The historical parallels between Islam and Mormonism are discussed briefly, and are well worth pondering: both were founded by new revelations building upon the Bible, both incorporated male domination and plural marriage at the outset, both were persecuted by the existing political and religious establishment, fled to a new haven in the desert, and developed in an environment of existential threats and violent responses. One shouldn't get carried away with such analogies—in particular Mormons never indulged in territorial conquest nor conversion at swordpoint. Further, the Mormon doctrine of continued revelation allows the religion to adapt as society evolves: discarding polygamy and, more recently, admitting black men to the priesthood (which, in the Mormon church, is comprised of virtually all adult male members).

Obviously, intertwining the story of the premeditated murder of a young mother and her infant committed by people who believed they were carrying out a divine revelation, with the history of a religion whose present-day believers often perceive themselves as moral exemplars in a decadent secular society is bound to be incendiary, and the reaction of the official Mormon church to the publication of the book was predictably negative. This paperback edition includes an appendix which reprints a review of a pre-publication draft of the original hardcover edition by senior church official Richard E. Turley, Jr., along with the author's response which acknowledges some factual errors noted by Turley (and corrected in this edition) while disputing his claim that the book “presents a decidedly one-sided and negative view of Mormon history” (p. 346). While the book is enlightening on each of the topics it treats, it does seem to me that it may try to do too much in too few pages. The history of the Mormon church, exploration of the present-day fundamentalist polygamous colonies in the western U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and the story of how the Lafferty brothers went from zealotry to murder and their apprehension and trials are all topics deserving of book-length treatment; combining them in a single volume invites claims that the violent acts of a few aberrant (and arguably insane) individuals are being used to slander a church of which they were not even members at the time of their crime.

All of the Mormon scriptures cited in the book are available on-line. Thanks to the reader who recommended this book; I'd never have otherwise discovered it.

December 2005 Permalink