In investigative journalist Sally Denton’s new book, The Colony: Faith and Blood in a Promised Land (W.W. Norton & Company 2022), she explores the long and complex history of the Mormon church, women’s place within that history, and what factors led to the violent deaths of nine women and children on a fateful day in 2019.
Denton’s book opens on 4 November 2019, when three mothers and their children set off in a caravan of vehicles to make a six-hour trek across a desolate road in Mexico, a known route for drug cartels. Nevertheless, the women had made the drive safely countless times before and had no reason to suspect that this time would be any different. Sadly, on the morning of the 4th, the three cars were ambushed by masked men armed with semi-automatic weapons who proceeded to riddle both the cars and the women and children inside them with bullets. In the case of thirty-year-old Rhonita LeBaron Miller, who was travelling with four of her seven children, including eight-month-old twins, and her ten- and twelve-year-old daughter and son, the gunmen shot all five of them and then set the car ablaze. The two other women, Christina Langford Johnson and Dawna Ray Langford, would suffer a similar fate, although some of their children would survive despite grave injuries. All three of the women were killed attempting to protect their children, and the crime at first seemed like a case of mistaken identity—with cartel members assuming that the vehicles and their occupants were associated with another cartel. However, as Denton goes on to suggest, the explanation behind these truly brutal killings may not be so simple.
All of the victims were members of the LeBaron and the La Mora communities—fundamentalist Mormon groups who originally broke from the more commonly known Latter Day Saints Church in the US to settle in Mexico after their religion outlawed polygamy. Denton’s book begins in 2019, but rewinds all the way back to the nineteenth century to explore the history of Colonia LeBaron—or The Colony, as its residents call their homestead—and what this history means in relation to the 2019 massacre. As Denton writes
this book is an attempt to answer a seemingly straightforward question: Who are the LeBarons, and what drove them first to settle in Utah in the 1840s, and then to colonize a region in Mexico in the 1880s as members of an embittered offshoot of a uniquely American sect? Put another way, why were Rhonita, Dawna, Christina, and their children on that road in the first place? (29)
The premise of The Colony is an interesting one. Focusing on such a recent crime that was widely covered by the US media, Denton showcases a careful journalistic voice and an eye for meticulous research, especially considering the welter of news media and social media material available to her. The opening chapter is a harrowing account of the day of the massacre, and Denton does an excellent job of leading with what is most important here: the lives of the victims. The book also required Denton to delve into the archives in search of material around the history of the colony and its members, a history that is not without its own significant amount of bloodshed. What Denton goes on to reveal about the colony, Mormonism, and the history of many of the people and relatives involved in this case, is truly shocking and well-paced on Denton’s part.
Personally, I have very little interest in Mormonism or religious history more widely. The opening chapter sets up a very compelling case, and one that feels so senseless and terrifying that I was desperate for any kind of answer for such violence. Denton does her best to provide such an answer through an exploration of the history of the colony and its members, but there were times where the subject lost my interest. Although the historical work in this book is necessary for foregrounding what will be revealed later, I would warn readers that the middle sections of this book do take some work to get through if religious history is not of great interest. For me, the case surrounding this book felt less like a mystery that needed to be solved, and more like an exploration of the social, political, and religious circumstances that led to the three women and their children being on that road. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly I think that the middle sections of the book are worth moving through in order to come to the violent, criminal, and literally cultish aspects of the events that occur in the text’s final third.
Overall, Denton does expertly bring together a number of narrative threads—both historical and contemporary—and conflicting perspectives to craft an excellently written book. The Colony strikes a balance between an investigative voice and deeply emotional imagery that can be difficult to find in this kind of writing. About The Colony, Denton writes
I instinctively sensed that the story would illustrate the many conflicts raging in the borderlands of the American West, where I was born and raised, and where I live: drug addiction, cartel violence, exploited women, and waters wars. Set against the backdrop of a long and controversial history of polygamy and religious extremism, the massacre was certain also to expose the contemporary world of Mormonism in Mexico. (275)
Indeed, Denton’s book brings all of these separate issues to bear on one shocking violent act in her book. Overall, this was an excellent read that highlighted some of the most shocking facts about a very recent true crime case. I highly recommend.
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About the Writer: Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.