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BOUND TO PLEASE / Daughter of polygamists finds her own path in life

The Japan News

By Hiroko Ihara / Japan News Staff WriterThe Sound of Gravel: A Memoir

By Ruth Wariner

Flatiron Books, 336pp

We cannot be born to the parents and environment of our choice.

Ruth Wariner was her mother’s fourth child and her father’s 39th. This may remind some Japanese readers of the 11th Tokugawa shogun, who fathered 53 children (and perhaps more) with 40 concubines. Those children’s lives were secure because of their father’s social status.

Wariner’s childhood was totally different.

“The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir” depicts her life until she was 15, when she escaped the polygamist colony in rural Mexico where she grew up.

Her story is full of white-knuckle incidents. Readers may be thankful such things are not happening to themselves, even while unable to turn away from the page. The book is insightful and as appealing as a superb psychological thriller.

It is a firsthand report on the little-known lives of polygamist families. It is also the story of a young girl who got out of a difficult situation to start her own life.

Her father, the beloved prophet of their church, believed “polygamy was one of the most holy and important principles” and that “women who ... loved their sister wives [with whom they shared a husband] and had as many children as they could would become goddesses.”

After her father was killed by her uncle, her mother married another polygamist, who never made enough money to provide for his 11 kids and stepchildren with two wives. Even worse, the stepfather started sexually abusing the author and some other children.

After hearing about this, her infatuated mother said in his defense, “This family needs a man around to lead us and to discipline the kids.”

Having 10 children, some with serious mental disabilities, her mother was so exhausted that she sometimes had the author take care of younger siblings on her behalf.

However, Wariner’s life was not always filled with difficulties. Good times with her siblings, the nature in the colony, her affectionate grandparents, her joy when electricity was installed at their home at last — these episodes leaven a serious story.

And her mother is not always helpless. She is good at finding and nicely wrapping secondhand toys as Christmas gifts for her children. “I also began to appreciate and admire her ability to create something out of nothing,” the author writes.

She cannot help but love her mother even while blaming her. The mixed feelings are another point of this story. For example, her mother’s sudden death was a sad event, but it enabled Wariner to escape the colony for the freedom to live an ordinary life.

The women in the colony were always saying: “It is better to have ten percent of one good man than to have one hundred percent of a bad man.” The author doubted it and not incidentally married a monogamous man herself. It didn’t happen easily. She wrote: “It took years of counseling, prayer, meditation, and self-reflection before I felt worthy of a man” with the qualities her husband has.

The author could finally shake off the shackles of the past by writing her story.

Where to Read

A relaxing place where you can be alone, where nobody will hear your cries of surprise, anger and relief.

Maruzen price: ¥4,480 (as of Sept. 14)

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