Authors: Ruth Wariner
Thank you for buying this
Flatiron Books ebook.
To receive special offers, bonus content,
and info on new releases and other great reads,
sign up for our newsletters.
Or visit us online at
For email updates on the author, click
The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way.
Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at:
For Kathy and her kids
The room feels crowded, the attention overwhelming. A swirl of women in chocolate-and-sage dresses surrounds me. They fasten the satin-covered buttons on my gown, adjust the ivory flower in my hair. When they’ve finished their fussing, I stare at my reflection in the mirror, centering my veil at the crown of my head. Over my shoulder, I see my sisters perched on the edge of the bed behind me.
“Are you ready?” I ask.
“Ready.” The three look up at me; stand up tall and straighten the hems of their dresses at their knees.
They might be ready,
but I’m not sure I am
. I grew up dreaming of this day. I fantasized about the handsome prince who would carry me off on his white horse, whisking me away into the sunset. And now here I am, convincingly regal in my lace gown and shiny ivory-and-silver slippers. There is a flowering-pink dogwood tree right outside the window of my dressing room, just as there should be, and birds are actually singing in it. I hear their song as I give myself a final once-over.
It is a wedding day just like every bride dreams of, at least until I climb the steps leading to the next room, where my large, loud family waits for me impatiently.
I feel my heart racing in my chest, the blood pulsing in my neck. My face turns warm, and I become flushed. It must be nerves, I tell myself. But I know it’s more than that. I know what I will see when I turn that knob and walk through the doorway.
I am my mother’s fourth child and my father’s thirty-ninth. I grew up in Colonia LeBaron, a small town in the Mexican countryside 200 miles south of El Paso, Texas. The colony, as we called it, was founded by my father’s father, Alma Dayer LeBaron, after God sent him a vision. In that vision, my grandfather was walking in the desert when he heard a voice that foretold of a place that would one day be populated with trees dripping with fruit, wonderful schools, beautiful churches, bountiful farms, and happy, faithful people. My grandfather had grown up in a fundamentalist Mormon family, and he always believed in the polygamist teachings of Joseph Smith. When the vision came to him, he knew he needed to move to Mexico and establish a community that would be a beacon of hope, an example of what comes from living righteously.
My grandfather and grandmother LeBaron established the colony in 1944, and other polygamist families soon followed. Before long, the dry Mexican earth was cleared of mesquite and planted with orchards, pecan trees, and gardens. Cattle were brought in to be raised, and the town grew and flourished. My grandfather boldly predicted that someday people from all over the world would make pilgrimages to the town, and that the work being done there would be of the utmost importance to the realization of God’s kingdom on earth.
My grandfather died before I was born, but I entered childhood in the community that was his legacy. I took my first steps on the dirt roads that ran through the small farming community, tiny rocks and dry dirt getting stuck between my toes and piercing the soft soles of my feet. The trees my grandfather planted offered the shade that first cooled and protected my pale, freckled skin from the harsh desert sunlight. I ran through the peach orchards with my siblings, drank fresh milk from the cows on our dairy farm, and ate vegetables from the gardens my grandfather had first seen in the vision God sent him. My family and I always tried our best to be the happy, faithful people God had promised would come to populate the colony.
* * *
“RUTHIE,” MOM YELLED
to me from the hallway, “Get up quick. We’ll be late for church.” I rubbed my eyes and pulled myself out of the small bed I shared with my sister Audrey. Even though she was five years older than me, she wore a cloth diaper that often leaked during the night. I took a towel and dried my damp legs as Mom told me to hurry and get dressed. “There’s not enough time to get Audrey and your brothers ready,” she hollered. “Matt’ll stay here and watch the kids and you’ll come to church with me.”
At five years old and with four siblings, having Mom’s undivided attention was a rare privilege. I threw my pink cotton dress over my head and tried to run my fingers through my tangled hair. Mom put my baby brother Aaron in his playpen and called to my older brother Matt, asking him to keep an eye on things. Then she grabbed my hand and pulled me along behind her. I scurried to keep up, taking three steps for every one of Mom’s long strides, happy to have been the one chosen to accompany her. The cool morning air was pungent with the scents of the freshly irrigated alfalfa fields, the dairy cows behind our house, and Mexican sage brush.
Every place in LeBaron was within walking distance of every other, and each unmarked, unnamed dirt road led to the church at the center of the colony. As Mom and I made our way to the simple, single-level adobe structure, pickup trucks sped past us, stirring up clouds of dust in their wake. As we got closer, we heard the strains of a piano and singing voices flowing through the two black wooden doors. “We’re already late, Ruthie,” Mom said, looking down at me through the plastic frames of her glasses. I was used to hurrying at her side; we were always late to everything.
Mom and I rushed past the few saddled horses tied to the crooked, wooden posts that held up the barbed-wire fence surrounding the churchyard. The singing voices grew louder as we entered the church and Mom searched the large, white-walled room for empty seats. The black wooden benches were full of congregants—women in Sunday dresses, nude nylons, and high heels, men in cowboy boots and Western shirts tucked into tight jeans under leather belts with big, silver belt buckles.
We crowded into open seats as Mom pulled out a hymn book from a wooden pocket on the back of the bench in front of us, cocked her neck forward, and squinted to peek over someone’s shoulder to find the right page. I loved standing next to her in church. I was mesmerized by her eyelashes, which were usually so blond that I couldn’t see them, but on Sundays she wore light brown Maybelline mascara and pearl-pink lipstick that she dabbed over her lips and onto her cheeks.
After playing three hymns, the pianist retired to a pew as a man stepped forward to utter a prayer, which a second man translated into Spanish for the Mexican parishioners on the opposite side of the building.
“Make sure no one can see your underpants, Sis,” Mom whispered, straightening the hem of my dress over my knees as the elder called for someone to come up and offer a testimony.
Lisa, my stepfather Lane’s sister, walked slowly, her head held high, the wooden heels of her strappy sandals tapping hard against the floor. She stood tall and spoke with confidence. She told us how thankful she was for all the blessings that our Heavenly Father had given her. She talked proudly about her devotion to the cause. She said that even though it was hard to share her husband with her sister wives, even though she sometimes felt jealous, she knew in her heart that she was obeying God’s will by living polygamy. Lisa said she loved being a mother and that she was grateful to be the caretaker of the beautiful spirits the Lord had sent her. Then she thanked Him for giving her a good, righteous man to father her children. “After all,” she said, “it is better to have ten percent of one good man than to have one hundred percent of a bad one.” The women of LeBaron were always saying that, and Mom always nodded her head in agreement.
As Lisa spoke, I gazed at the three large, black-and-white photographs that hung behind the red-carpeted pulpit. The middle photo, bigger than the other two, was of a man with a round, shiny forehead and a square jaw. His dark hair was combed straight back, a few thin strands stretched flat over a bald spot. He wore a crisp white shirt buttoned to the top with a dark tie and matching jacket. His full lips were closed, and he didn’t smile, but he had kind and happy eyes that stared out with confidence and authority.
This was my father. He had been the prophet of our church. He died when I was three months old, and no matter how many times I begged Mom to tell me about him, I could sense that there was a lot about my dad that I’d never know. Did he like playing board games and hiking in the Mexican hills like me? Did he like chocolate ice cream or did he prefer my favorite, old-fashioned vanilla? Everyone always said my dad was the kindest, most faithful, God-fearing man they knew. I wished I could remember what life had been like when he was alive.