The story begins with a murder of a mother and her baby in Utah in 1984. Brenda and Erica Lafferty were violently killed by Brenda’s brothers-in-law, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who claimed to have received a revelation from God commanding them to carry out the murders. Krakauer uses this story as a launch point to discuss the Mormon faith and the divergences in belief that spawned Mormon Fundamentalist churches, communities, and believers (like the Lafferty brothers). The book covers the founding of the religion by Joseph Smith and the move westward from New York to Utah, as well as the introduction to and eventual removal of the practice of polygamy from the mainstream church.
The book itself is extremely interesting, though perhaps a little outdated at this point (for example, Krakauer discusses one fundamentalist community and its leadership under Warren Jeffs, who was imprisoned in 2007). My only compunction is that the book meandered a bit more than I would have liked, and often the explanations of family trees for these large and sometimes incestuous communities were hard to follow. Nevertheless, I think anyone who has an interest in religion, or is curious about the Mormon faith (and some of the wider publicized digressions linked to the church – yes, those of you who like reading about crime!) would enjoy Under the Banner of Heaven. For me, this was an excellent supplement to my trip out west and I loved learning about the history (sordid and contentious as it might be) of Utah and Arizona.
Just a note of caution, the story becomes quite violent in the scenes describing the murders and there is mention of rape and incest as well, so sensitive ears might want to steer clear.