I read this expecting it to be another story of life in the Colorado FLDS, and it is that, but it's also much more. The heart of it is the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty (part of an unrelated fundamentalist Mormon cult) who murdered the young wife and infant daughter of their brother Allen because they saw her as a threat to their faith and family.
And because Ron received revelations from God telling him to "remove" them.
Krakauer does a masterful job of researching not only the story of the Laffertys but the history of the LDS itself and why its fundamentalist sects so easily turn to violence. In my reading of escapees from the Colorado City FLDS, one thing is stressed over and over: Warren Jeffs taught Blood Atonement, the belief that some sins cannot be purified by Christ's blood and must be washed away with the sinner's own, but it was never practiced. No matter what horrors the writers endured during their time in the cult, they insist, no one was ever actually sacrificed under the prophet's orders.
Now I understand that this must apply only to that specific community, and even then probably only within the lifetimes of the individual writers. Because Blood Atonement is something that early Mormons under Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and modern fundamentalists in their little cults, have always done. And they're still doing it. It's a fundamental doctrine of the faith, right up there with plural wives and not working on Sunday.
Krakauer shows us, in this well-researched, heavily annotated, and extremely readable book how Joseph Smith, a charismatic, illiterate farmer who couldn't keep his pants on, created the quintessential American religion. Not to spread the truth of Christ or seize continents for his king, but to justify his lusts for women, power, and blood by convincing people that he was the prophet of the Lord foretold in the Old Testament. Obviously the NT doesn't much figure in his philosophy, or that of his fundamentalist followers. These followers are a nightmare for many of their children, and sometimes the odd gentile who gets in their way, but I'm certain Old Joe would be proud.