Like so many teenage girls, Ruth Wariner and her friends used to spend hours back in the 1980s dreaming and talking of future romances. But despite living in a fundamentalist “plural marriage” colony in Mexico that had broken away from the Mormon church, most of them did not hope for a polygamous future as a “sister wife.” They knew all too well what that meant.
Wariner was her father’s 39th child; her mother, 17 when she married, was the fifth wife of “the prophet.” When Wariner was a baby, her father was killed by assassins sent by his brother in a bloody feud over control of the colony. Her stepfather had four wives, none of whom he could afford to support, and Wariner’s upbringing was horrific. In The Sound of Gravel, Wariner describes her childhood and eventual escape in vivid, heartrending detail.
Her mother, Kathy, loving but in thrall to her ghastly second husband, Lane, had 10 children, three with disabilities. They lived in cramped, primitive conditions in their Mexican settlement, largely supported by the welfare fraud Kathy committed on frequent trips back to the U.S. Lane was abusive and incompetent, ultimately with tragic consequences.
Wariner loved her siblings and friends, but suffered from mistreatment, poverty and a truncated education as her family hid in plain sight from the puzzled but apparently clueless authorities. All her frantic efforts to end her step-father’s abuse were stymied by her mother and their church.
Wariner takes us inside this renegade community as only a survivor could. She writes with particular beauty about her brothers and sisters, innocent children living sad, deprived lives because of their parents’ folly. Her fears for them finally drove 15-year-old Wariner to flee to the U.S., where she built a better life for the family with the intelligence, fortitude and compassion that are evident throughout her impressive memoir.