In March, my new novel The Scent of Rain will be released by the Amphorae Publishing Group. The book tells the story of Rose Madsen, a teenage girl raised in the polygamous community of Colorado City, Arizona, a cult where women are second-class citizens, preyed upon by the men of the community, forced into underage marriage, and required to give birth until they are no longer able.
While the story is fiction, the facts underlying Rose’s plight are real. At the order of the Prophet, Warren Jeffs, a man with upwards of 80 wives, the schools in Colorado City were shut down. With no education and no access to phones, TV, or the Internet, his followers have been brainwashed into believing the outside world is filled with devils and unremitting evil.
While researching information for the book, I traveled to Colorado City. At one point, outsiders were prevented from entering the town by men with rifles, but since the government paid to build the roads, stopping visitors is now illegal. What I found in the place the residents call Short Creek was both astonishing and sad. The women and girls sported strangely swept-up hairstyles and identical ankle-length, high-necked, long-sleeved, pastel-colored prairie dresses. The memory of a child, not much more than four, in her pale blue dress, staring at me from a grocery cart in the small town market broke my heart. I frightened her. My clothes identified me as an outsider, an emissary representing the evil she believed lay beyond the borders of her insular world.
Visiting Colorado City was, frankly, disturbing. But the information I gleaned from interviewing survivor Flora Jessop, who twice escaped the cult and has spent her life rescuing other girls and women from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, impressed upon me the horrors that were going on in my own state. Add to that the stories of Dr. Theodore Tarby who treated many of the FLDS children on the Arizona Strip and who tried to convince the cult members to marry outside their community, in order to avoid the plague of birth defects caused by inbreeding. Unfortunately, they ignored him.
The people of Colorado City and Hildale, towns which abut one another and which straddle the borders of Arizona and Utah, are often in the news. Slowly, their community is changing as the abuses inherent in their belief system are become more understood. As a former reporter, the simple fact that this cult exists in the United States in the 21st Century astounds me. As a teacher in a Title I school and a foster mom, the thought of children being abused by grown-ups who should know better sickens me. It has been hard to turn away.
But there is hope. The U.S. Department of Justice has recommended that the local police force be disbanded for its role in discriminating against non-believers. Cult leaders have been arrested for a complex fraudulent food stamp scheme. And Warren Jeffs sits in a cell in the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, serving a term of life plus 20 years for sexually assaulting his 12 and 15-year-old child brides. In a spot of good news, a new library has opened in Colorado City, with a goal of providing education, information, and entertainment. Some light is beginning to shine through.
And that is the point of The Scent of Rain. Despite the harrowing conditions in which she lives, Rose yearns for future where she is not lost in a faceless sea of women valued only for their ability to bear children. She dreams of an education, fights against those who disparage her ambitions, and finds wonder in the world around her. As a teacher, my delight would be to meet Rose in my classroom.