Sunday, February 26, 2012

Schmidt, Susan Ray: Favorite Wife

Imagine being married off to a man over twice your age. Imagine being the sixth wife of a man. Imagine he is still with all five previous wives and continues to add more. Imagine raising five kids in a series of ramshackle Mexican shacks and trying to keep them safe in the middle of a violent blood feud.
If you were Susan Ray Schmidt (formerly LeBaron) all this and more would be your unlucky lot. As a child Susan’s family joined the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times, a fundamentalist Mormon sect that practiced, amongst other things, polygamy. At age fifteen she was courted by and quickly married to, a higher up in the church named Verlan LeBaron. Schmidt’s book focuses on her eight years of polygamous marriage and the realities of the “godly” life that fundamentalist Mormons tout. It is a simply wrought tale, and it is obvious at points that Schmidt is not a career author. Though at times this makes for a tedious book, with lots of drivel about who was dating who and what was made for dinner, it gives a feeling of authenticity to the book. This is a woman telling you about her life, not a stylized wordsmith creating fictions.
Schdmit imagined that in marriage she would receive a holy life where she would become a “jewel” in Verlan’s “heavenly crown.” Instead she got a life of neglect, loneliness, and extreme poverty. The squalor that was considered normal was unbelievable. She lived in tiny, hot trailers, in drafty shacks, and in rain soaked jungles while being an obedient wife. Her children often suffered from malnutrition, thanks to the ever growing number of children (thanks to no birth control). “Breakfast was a bowl of coarsely ground wheat mush with milk and honey, and a slice of bread…Verlan can’t afford better food than this!” (134). Later her first child would suffer from chronic diarrhea after months went by with nothing to eat but plain beans.
On top of this, a split in the church caused Verlan’s brother Ervil to mastermind murders of rival fundamentalist Mormon groups. Ervil and his followers would sweep into areas and commit a “raid” in which they would kidnap, slaughter, and set fire to things at will, including two of Ervil’s thirteen wives. Unfortunately, Schmidt devote very little of her book to the feud, instead focusing on day to day life as a plural wife.  Despite this, it is an interesting read, and will make any monogamously married person feel a little more grateful for their situation. I myself felt compelled to never have children after pages upon pages of the emotional and physical drain caused by raising children. Not to mention all of the childbirth scenes.
Eventually Schmidt would leave Verlan to settle down into a monogamous, mainstream Mormon life. This is perhaps the best part of the book, to finally see a woman who has endured so much finally straighten up and make a better life for her and her family.  
I am told this book is not as good as the book by her “sister wife” Irene Spencer, published shortly after Schmidt’s. I will leave that for my readers to decide. 

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