Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air, recently tried his hand at history with Under the Banner of Heaven. Many people have said of Krakauer that he is a storyteller, long on narrative and short on historical accuracy. The thinking is that history must be plain as a loaf of wheat bread to be factual. But history is just that, a story that needs to be told.
Dorothy Allred Solomon’s memoir Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk is full of historical accuracy. It is, after all, the story of her life. Yet in spite of its vivid elements—fundamentalist fanatics, exile in Mexico, death by dysentery and passionate plural wives—it lacks flavor. Allred left the fundamentalist group because she could not reconcile the disparity between the laws of God and the laws of the state. However, some of the stubborn Mormon influences linger like a jar of preserved peaches. She forgets about the storytelling and leaves the heart of the tale—her voice—almost completely absent.
The book chronicles the life of Rulon C. Allred, a notorious polygamist leader who practiced “The Principle” after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abolished it. Dorothy is the daughter of Rulon’s fourth plural wife, 28th of 48 children. Her youth was comprised of poverty, government raids and a complex web of sister-wives running from the law.
Solomon glosses over the emotional impact of the elements that shape her life, focusing instead on factual events with a detachment that is not cold, analytical or even intellectual. It’s just weird. Perhaps this is a result of living in secrecy; sharing the truth of her polygamist life with others meant imprisonment for her father. This memoir is a safe forum for her to outline the past, sort through the confusion and make sense of a lifestyle that lacks logic. Perhaps the shame and confusion of her illegitimate identity was so cumbersome, she wrote with indifference to avoid sentimentality. Or, perhaps her life was so controlled by others’ passions that she never explored her own. Unfortunately, the resulting book is as inaccessible to the reader as the concept of sharing a husband is to most women.
Like a plain homespun dress made for maximum coverage, the language in this memoir is obscure and shapeless. In her adolescence, Solomon was date-raped. What makes the passage in Predators describing that incident so disturbing is that her grief, mourning and rage for something so violently taken from her are missing. There is maddening passivity in her response, as if God’s will be done. She writes, “I was filled with the dark knowledge that I had been headed for this, in fact that I had been waiting for this attack for most of my life.”
At another critical juncture in her life she questioned her father, upbringing and the church. In one profound moment, she abandons the fundamentalist religion: “I walked my daughter down the street to the ward-house and waved goodbye at the double doors.” That’s it—no weeping, no sense of loss, no flood of relief or honest mix of all. It isn’t until a later reference that the importance of that act becomes clear, requiring readers to peel back the pages like layers of cotton to find the buried sentence.
The book lacks the emotional self-awareness that infuses language with imagery, rhythm and poetry. The tale is about finding identity and trusting one’s voice—and ironically, Solomon isn’t here. What does rage and love for a father who abandons a family to survive on a forty-pound bag of carrots for the month of November feel like? How does it color the landscape of a Montana ranch or the landscape of your heart? I kept asking what? How? Why? Not because the book raised provocative questions, but because her insight was still safely shrouded in facts. It is as if Solomon could not take the steps into her own psyche to accept the real horror and abuse she endured at the hands of her father. The book lacks the art of storytelling. And her story still remains to be told.