Award-winning author Denton (American Massacre, 2003, etc.), who’s written widely on the American West, tells the story of her great-great-grandmother, a Mormon pioneer.
A well-heeled Victorian Englishwoman, Jean Rio Griffiths found herself dissatisfied with the staid ways of the Church of England. When in 1848 Jean Rio and her husband met Mormon missionary John Taylor, they were captivated by his message, and in 1849 they were baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Just months later, Jean Rio’s husband died, and in 1851 the widow took her seven children to America to join the Mormons in Utah. Jean Rio was ultimately disappointed by the church—she loathed polygamy, she was horrified by the 1857 massacre, when Mormons slaughtered a train-full of “Gentile” pioneers, and she couldn’t tolerate the Mormons’ acceptance of widespread poverty. Eventually, she left and moved to California. The strength of Denton’s biography lies in her eye for detail: for example, in the description of Jean Rio’s grand piano, the first to make it by wagon to the intermountain West, or the mention of the ox that died because he ingested Indian war paint. The book is filled with riveting vignettes, like the stories of Jean Rio’s mother’s escape as a baby from Revolutionary France to Scotland and of Jean Rio’s daughter-in-law’s migration from Denmark to Utah. Denton, however, fails to establish herself as an entirely trustworthy narrator. Granted, impartial writing about Mormonism is rare. But while the tale here isn’t wildly sensationalistic, neither is it entirely evenhanded. Denton speaks of Jean Rio’s being “seduced” by the story the missionaries told. She leans heavily on Fawn Brodie’s biased biography of Joseph Smith but doesn’t cite standard academic histories like Jan Shipps’s Mormonism. The ending—celebrating the “tolerance” and “hope for a community of faith irrespective of creed” that, in Denton’s view, Jean Rio espoused by the end of her life—is anodyne.
Jean Rio’s is an interesting life, but Denton’s fourth outing disappoints.