Belle o’ the Waters

Written by Raima Larter
Review by Fiona Alison

In 1858, after an arduous trek across mountains and desert―a young wife and newborn lost in childbirth along the way―newly-made bishop Erastmus Waters settles his remaining four wives and 21 children at Big Spring, Idaho. A few other travelers have accompanied the LDS family north from Salt Lake, among them young Daniel Coates, his father and two uncles, a silver miner and a lapsed Mormon. In Erastmus’ view they are all apostates, and he orders his family not to associate with them, a recipe for tension and dissent in the newly-founded community.

The oldest girl of First Wife, 14-year-old Belle Waters, becomes pregnant by Daniel but keeps her secret even when Daniel asks her father’s permission to marry. Raging at Daniel, Erastmus forbids a marriage to an apostate and suggests other options. Belle’s mother is sympathetic to her plight but has to follow her husband’s dictates.

A number of concepts presented here―the all-powerful husband/father figure, the unquestioning obedience of wives and children, the friendship of sister-wives, the closeness of siblings of different mothers―may rattle some millennial sensibilities. In the early LDS church, polygamy was not only permitted but promoted, and Larter’s evident compassion for her subject lets us experience this complex family dynamic and the religious motivations through fresh eyes. The characters are rounded and sympathetic, and I could feel for all of them even when I disliked them for their actions or harsh words. This is an accomplished debut, and I commend the author for her sensitive presentation of this family saga and the hard-scrabble life they endure: fraught with tension, yet deftly balanced with joyous and hopeful times. Recommended.