ONE MORNING in the first year of my MFA — this must have been April or May of 2008 — a pair of friends began discussing the recent raid on a Mormon polygamist compound in west Texas. It was information-sharing on its way to debate: 52 girls had been taken from their families after reports of sexual abuse and forced underage marriage; the state police, armed to the teeth, rushed in to the rescue with workers from Child Protective Services not far behind. But was it a rescue?

I’d read about the story, but only a little. I felt too involved — and not involved enough, somehow — sitting there by a coffee table in the graduate student lounge and pretending casual interest as I prepped for a class.

“It’s a tough situation, sure,” one friend was saying, “but it’s also hard to feel too bad about breaking up a cult based on child rape —”

“The state just ripped these girls away from their mothers,” the other broke in. “I don’t feel good about that at all!”

I took a certain reassurance in hearing my own conflicted feelings about the case represented in the debate, and by two female friends at that, both atheists, both seemingly at home in their secular skins. I also felt grateful that my friends hadn’t actually involved me in the debate, despite the fact — or perhaps because — they knew I still clung to some semblance of a Mormon identity. It was a tricky identity to navigate at that particular moment. People were still talking about Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Under the Banner of Heaven, an exposé of fundamentalist Mormons on the Arizona-Utah border. Proposition Eight in California was rearing its ugly head, too, funded in large part from the Mormon Church’s coffers. Not official coffers, not tithe money, I was quick to point out to my friends. No cent of mine had gone into that bigoted PR maw; in fact, I’d donated against Prop Eight, to the anti-anti–gay marriage cause. I felt like a faker making these explanations, oleaginous, needy, pathetic — exhausted. When I’d heard about the raid on the polygamist compound in Eldorado, Texas, my first thought was: “Great, here we go again.”

I thought of that craven response again recently, in the middle of Shawn Vestal’s remarkable first novel Daredevils. A young girl named Ruth in Short Creek, Arizona (the wellspring of the polygamist community Krakauer wrote about, as well as the one raided by Texas law enforcement in 2008), is awakened by booming sounds in the night. “The booms are like dream noise. Like heaven noise, hell noise,” Ruth thinks. This is the start of the infamous 1953 raid on Short Creek, another night-into-day sweep that resulted in hundreds of arrests, more than 150 children placed in foster care, children separated from parents, wives from husbands, abused from abusers.

Yet Vestal is too canny a writer to create an argument in lieu of a scene. Instead, he presses into service a gifted eye for observation, an acute ear for the rhythms of speech made quiet by anxiety, the “vibrato of fear” behind the words, the confused images and echoing doubts in a mind gone suddenly cavernous with worst-case scenarios. Is this it? Ruth wonders. Is this the Second Coming?

The children have all been crammed into a little schoolroom, while the fathers — the leaders of the community — are led away. A journalist follows after them, taking photographs, chomping on gum.

“Then they take the mothers away,” Ruth observes. A muted shock seeps into the narration, narrowing itself down to a pinprick that focuses onto the aftermath of this apocalypse. Ruth has managed to keep hold of her two younger sisters through sheer desperate clutching. Now the three of them sit in the affluent living room of a foster family, while “Ruth’s mind keeps softening, drifting. Sarah and Alma sit beside her, legs straight before them, faces wrung white.” Moments later, a woman whose name Ruth can’t, or won’t, remember is kneeling down in front of them. Is it to pray with them?

Ruth thinks she should not pray with these people, that praying with these people would be a sin, probably, but then she realizes that the woman wants to give them a hug, then she realizes that one of her sisters is crying again. Which one is crying? Alma is crying. […] The woman is kneeling there, and she is saying something softly, and her arms are open, and she smells like lotion, and Alma is crying.

It’s a bravura passage in a novel brimming with them, runs of word-perfect sentences that burn themselves into your memory as if with a soldering iron. A little hard to believe, sometimes, that Vestal is a writer just out of the gate, but mostly it’s just exciting to watch such a talent unspool itself.

In Godforsaken Idaho, Vestal’s first collection of stories, which won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, the troubling legacies of Mormonism come under a rare and artful scrutiny. The last and most assured story, “Diviner,” set in early 19th-century New York, recalled for me the unselfconscious historical fiction of a book like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. No footnotes masquerading as speech, no fetishized historical “color,” just vivid humanity brought into focus by the pressure of the author’s noticing. In “Diviner,” a man named Isaac Hale looks helplessly on as the slick Joseph Smith wins over his daughter Emma. Smith is a buried-treasure hunter, making claims of heavenly guidance and defrauding the locals, and now he is a part of Hale’s household, nothing to be done. I remember the quickening I felt when one of Hale’s newfound enemies spat menacingly at his feet, “a brown sluice that contract[ed] in the dust like a worm.”

A similar moment arrives in Daredevils, set a century and a half later, most of it in rural Idaho and Arizona. A 17-year-old senior in high school, Jason Harder is — at best — lukewarm about the Mormon faith his parents take for granted. He is thoroughly disgusted with the small-town life around him, the people pining for Nixon (it’s 1975), and the dirty tedium of his work on the family farm. Jason would much rather rewatch the Evel Knievel jumps he’s taped from Wide World of Sports than deal with the farm’s jackrabbit infestation. “Raise this stupid animal, kill that stupid animal, milk the other stupid animal, poison this stupid animal,” Jason complains to his best friend Boyd. Then he hawks a dramatic loogie into the dirt, “where it coils and darkens like a worm.” It’s a good enough image to deserve a re-airing, particularly in this story about the dirt and grime, literal and spiritual, and the difficulty of washing it off or spitting it out all the way.

A few hundred miles to the south, another teenager named Loretta has been married off to Jason’s black sheep uncle, Dean Harder. Dean is already married with a brood of young children being raised in the “true” Mormonism, the branch of Joseph Smith’s religion that never turned its back on “The Principle” of plural marriage.

Loretta is now a “sister wife,” a new “aunt” to the Harder children, tasked with “rais[ing] up a glorious seed unto the Lord” with Dean. She’s also a 15-year-old who likes pop country music, collecting arrowheads, joyriding around town dreaming of faster newer cars, and imagining the worldly lives of the women in the Tussy ads — “Win a Mustang to Match Your Lipstick!” After each of her nights with Dean, Loretta goes into the bathroom and uses a homemade solution of vinegar and ammonia to burn him out of her. She is biding her time, but just barely — scheming to escape, she is on guard against the softening she sometimes feels in herself, how her hatred of Dean “has slid into something like accommodation, how she has found a place inside herself for all of this,” and how she’s come to love the children.

We meet Ruth in these pages as well, some 30 years after the raid that sent her scurrying inside herself, inside her faith, like a weapon and a shelter at the same time. She is Dean’s first wife, hard and proper with Loretta, an unyielding disciplinarian to her children, a shrewd partner to her husband in the family’s bulk-foods business. In Loretta’s eyes, Ruth is “harder than humorless — believing life is meant to be a trial, and her task is to drive these children into heaven, to teach them to ignore pleasure in pursuit of salvation.” Ruth tells Loretta this outright — that softness can only harm her and the children, make them weaker and more vulnerable, and that the hardest part of godly love is to be stern.

The engine of the plot has now begun to whirr and rattle, spinning us up to Idaho to check in on Jason and his Stephen Dedalus–like plans to escape his “nets,” as Joyce called them, then back down to Arizona to check in with Loretta. Loretta’s private horror gets blunted in the crushing routine of daily labor. She rises early to inventory and arrange large shipments of wheat, barley, flour, oats, and powdered milk to the other families in the community, local nursing homes, and even the county jail. Zion’s Harvest Bulk Foods has begun to thrive, and Dean, its board and CEO, has begun to chafe under the community elders’ insistence that he put all his earnings into the communal pot. Dean’s humanizing greed is what ultimately takes the family up north to the main Harder homestead in Idaho, where Loretta is presented to prying neighbors as Ruth’s visiting niece. No one’s gaze is quite as prying as Jason’s, of course, Dedalus-like in his randiness too. Loretta notices her so-called cousin’s attentions and eventually harnesses them to her own plans for escape.

The long coming-together of these two characters and plotlines can feel a little determined, a little processional and ordered in its approach, especially if the consistent excellence of Vestal’s prose has sent you back to the stories in Godforsaken Idaho with their spring and surprise. I’m inclined to chalk this orderliness up to the exigencies of the longer form: most novels need a steel-girded structure to keep the end from the beginning, and to keep us reading with pleasure, as we do here.

As always, Vestal’s prose is wonderfully measured and cadenced throughout, with an unforced lyricism that knows just when to take flight. The day Jason and his grandfather sneak away to see the great Evel Knievel jump a local canyon is a day with “a skin around it, a membrane that might burst with the wrong word.” Below Knievel’s launch pad, “the cut basalt walls of the canyon turn back afternoon light at strange angles, silvered here, ashen there.” (Here again there are echoes of McCarthy, great poet of the western landscape.) The inside of a tractor is “oil-rank”; a morning stands in “frigid yellow light.” When Loretta and Jason and Jason’s friend Boyd finally escape to the open road, their first stop is Elko, Nevada, at a casino hotel where “fifty years of cigarettes and fried food haunt the air.” I could really go on.

Perhaps my favorite moments in Daredevils are the ones that manage to hang briefly free of the plot’s gravity, that carve a new character facet or a new moment in time out of language. One such moment has Louis, Jason’s father, talking to the local deputy after his son has disappeared during the night. “Hafta wait forty-eight hours before we can do a thing,” the deputy says. This is a man who sometimes comes to church, an occasional supplicant in the congregation Louis shepherds, but when Louis sees him chewing gum — another onlooker chomping away on gum — “for that alone” Louis wants to climb over the counter and clock him.

Then there’s Loretta, finally the heroine of this happy-ending story, in a quiet moment with one of the children she’ll have to leave behind — little Benjamin, who loves when Loretta reads The Poky Little Puppy to him. Ruth tolerates the book because the puppy gets punished in the end; it squares with her wounded, wounding version of the universe. About halfway through the reading Benjamin rests his head against Loretta’s chest:

His chubby hand curls into a loose fist, resting on her belly. She can smell his hair and his skin, a familiar scent — grass, sweat, play, boy, and something more, something family. She finishes the book. The wayward puppy gets what he has coming — no dessert. She thinks Ben has fallen asleep, but he lifts his head and says, “Again,” and she starts over. The puppy digs and disobeys. Ben adjusts, shifts against her. Loretta presses her cheek against his head. What a warm, fragile being.

Then the moment is over. It glows and goes out. There’s nothing about this beautiful little scene that can be reduced to a thesis statement. It isn’t an argument; it isn’t social history writ small. It’s a small boy in a young woman’s lap, a young woman not much older than a girl herself. In a few sentences Vestal has brought this scene, in all its beauty and complication, to life. Ben’s warm weight is there with us, and then it’s gone, and we, like Loretta, know we will miss it.

¤

Ryan McIlvain’s first novel, Elders, was nominated for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. His second novel is due out next year. A former Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford, he currently lives with his wife in Los Angeles.