Isabella Biedenharn
December 23, 2015 AT 10:56 PM EST

The Sound of Gravel

Current Status
In Season
Ruth Wariner
Flatiron Books

We gave it an A

Memoirs about cults are inherently fascinating. They appeal to our inner voyeurs, of course, but they also come with an infallible structure: There’s the way the group lures you in, the truth about what happens inside, the turning point, and—finally—the escape. But Ruth Wariner’s recollection of growing up in the polygamous Mormon Colonia LeBaron, a small outpost nestled in the Mexican countryside, is more than just interesting on principle. It’s so wrenching and moving that I lost sleep finishing the book, and then lost even more lying awake ruminating on it—a testament to Wariner’s skill at making painful events from decades ago feel visceral and to her willingness to reopen wounds.

Colonia LeBaron was founded by Wariner’s paternal grandfather, an excommunicated fundamentalist Mormon. Her father, murdered by his brother when Wariner was 3 months old, was the church’s prophet. After his death, Wariner’s mother, Kathy, a former waitress who entered the colony with her parents (they eventually left; she didn’t), became the second wife of a man named Lane—a near sociopath who abused Wariner and some of her stepsisters for years. But this abuse isn’t even the half of it: Kathy and her growing brood (whom she and Lane once left home alone for weeks) lived in poverty, eating rice and beans and calling various mobile homes across Texas and Mexico home. Ruth shared a bed with her violent, mentally disturbed older sister who wet the bed nightly. The strongest bonds, and perhaps the book’s only source of light, are among the Wariner siblings, where Ruth herself is the glue: Her fierce determination to protect and keep her siblings together is a marvel. But the adults in this book are people you want to slap awake—especially when the devastating climax knocks the wind out of you.

Wariner is a survivor, but more important, she’s a fantastic writer, letting the unbelievable events of her childhood speak for themselves while she wrestles with issues of blame and—miraculously—forgiveness. A

OPENING LINE “I am my mother’s fourth child and my father’s thirty-ninth.”

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