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Northwest Passages Book Review: “When the Moon Turns to Blood: Lori Vallow, Chad Daybell, and a Story of Murder, Wild Faith, and End Times” – Leah Sottile (Twelve)

July 3, 2022 Updated Thu., July 14, 2022 at 10:52 a.m.

By Ron Sylvester For The Spokesman-Review

My mistake was thinking this was just another true crime book.

It sure looks like one by the cover, a measure by which we are taught not to judge books. I understand why publishers and marketers would want readers to think this is another true crime book. True crime is a big seller with a huge market of voyeuristic readers wanting to explore the hearts and minds of the atrocious.

Leah Sottile, however, goes far beyond the crime into the history and sociology of the motive behind the killing of two children in rural Idaho, the son and daughter of a Christian who had fallen from grace and the man who pushed her off the righteous cliff.

The most important and interesting tale in this book is found in the last five words of the subtitle: “… Wild Faith, and End Times.”

“When the Moon Turns to Blood” takes its main title from the Book of Revelations of the New Testament, and its religious overtones is what drives the story that reaches far beyond the killing of 7-year-old Joshua “J.J.” Vallow and 16-year-old Tylee Ryan.

The killings fit the typical prototype for a true crime narrative, as tabloid fodder fed the story that’s still being told, as Lori Vallow and her Chad Daybell await trial in January. They’re also charged with conspiring to kill Daybell’s ex-wife.

But the true story centers around the obsession with Revelations and the human tendency to try and predict the “end times” described in the final book of the Bible.

Sottile uses the story, unthinkable to most parents, that a mom would participate in the killing of her own children to weave together an unhealthy obsession, shared by a large swath of Americans that poisons both Christianity and conservative politics.

Vallow and Daybell were both members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known among members as LDS and others as Mormons. But over the years their faith stepped over the beliefs in the mainstream into the realm that may have led to murder.

The fetishization of the end of the world, however, is a story bigger than two people and shared by untold numbers. Sottile, a journalist who has spent years covering those who lurk on the extreme ends of society, connects how this fixation can lead to terrible crimes, from the fiery siege of Waco, Texas, to the Oklahoma City bombing and the kidnapping and torture of Elizabeth Smart.

But the twisting of Scripture goes back more than a century of misinterpretations and zealotry, fueling a mistrust in government and a reliance on religion to repair political discourse.

Sottile traces decades of meshing of American church and state that has led to mistrust and violence.

One key moment in the timeline involves W. Cleon Skousen, an LDS member, former FBI clerk and chief of police in Salt Lake City. After leaving the FBI, Skousen became a staunch follower of the John Birch Society, an anti-communist group often credited as giving birth to the modern social conservatism movement. Skousen founded the Freemen Institute, which proports that the U.S. Constitution was inspired by God.

That may ring familiar to those who earlier this month heard Arizona Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers, also an LDS member, tell the House Jan. 6 committee: “It is a tenant of my faith that the Constitution is divinely inspired.”

While such a belief led Bowers to stand up for democracy, others used it as motivation to attack the Capitol.

It has led others to blow up federal buildings or burn down communities because of a church doctrine they claim empowers them to use Scriptures to justify violence to save a Constitution hanging by a thread.

Perhaps, some have used it to justify child homicide.

Sottile’s investigative reporting uses police reports, court evidence from public filings and even text messages between parties unearthed by authorities to piece together this story.

While it certainly will appeal to those who revel in true crime, it is so much more.

It’s a tale of American politics, religion and the tenuous foundation supporting them.

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