Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

I picked this book up on a recommendation from Susanne, who had read and mentioned it on her blog. I'd seen it in the bookstore before that, but I never picked it up - without Susanne's rec, I likely never would have read it, which, in hindsight, would have meant me missing out on an excellent book. (So, thanks! Susanne!)

The book is a mix of two stories, one historical fiction, and the other straight out fiction - a small murder mystery.

(This is a portrait of Mrs. Ann Eliza Young)

The historical fiction part of the book is based on the life of Ann Eliza Young who was a wife of the Mormon Prophet Brigham Young. She was either wife nineteen, or wife mumbltysomething, depending on who's doing the counting. (Seriously, this is an issue - apparently no one's positive how many wives he wound up actually having - the most common number accepted is fifty-five. But there were likely more that no one ever knew about.) Her part of the novel actually begins before she was born, with the stories of how her parents came to be Mormons and follow Brigham Young out to Utah. How they married, and how, eventually, though her father had sworn to marry only one woman, he wound up marrying a total of five wives (three of them in three weeks!). The spread of the doctrine of Celestial Marriage (polygamy) and how it destroyed lives - Ann Eliza's in particular, since it is her story, told (for the most part) from her point of view.

The modern story, the small murder mystery, is told through the eyes of Jordan Scott - a young man who was 'excommunicated' from a cult/sect/whatever you want to call them of the Mormons known as the 'Firsts' (think FLDS, only cult-ier. Really.) for holding hands with a step-sister - ostensibly he was 'excommunicated' because of an inappropriate relationship with her, but of course, it was really because he was hitting puberty and needed to be removed so he didn't 'compete' for wives with the older men, including their current 'Prophet'. (Which is something that happens to all the boys from the town, of course.) But the story takes place years after he was left on the side of the highway with nothing.

It picks up when his father is murdered, and his mother is arrested for the murder. He goes to see her, on something of an impulse, convinced that she'd finally had enough and shot him, only to become convinced that she didn't, and that there's a murderer still running around Mesadale (the town the Firsts own). His story is the one of the mystery of who did the killing, and why - him being forced to go back to the hell hole he grew up in and face a few things he thought he'd put behind him. To see his mother again, after she left him in the middle of nowhere, perhaps to die, because 'God said to'.

For me, the mystery itself....*waggles hand back and forth* not the most interesting part of the book. It's not as though Jordan solves it with his hitherto unknown keen analytical mind. He pokes and prods and eventually the truth does out, but it would have done so without him. His story is more about the reality of what he left behind, blind faith, and the ability of some to see through the lies, and others to be blinded by them their entire lives.

The connection between Jordan's story and Ann Eliza's is revealed through the book, so I don't want to give that away (not that it's a huge plot point or anything, just that I don't like to tell when I think people should read for themselves.), but it's not as though there are two entirely separate stories being told. They do connect, down through the ages.

Warnings, for those who worry about such things: bad language. Jordan & co. have slight potty mouths. I'm not sure the brief mentions of people have sex deserve a warning, but they are there, in case you're an *incredibly* delicate flower. There is also mention of homosexuality (Jordan's gay - not a big secret) and some sex acts in that context, but nothing even close to explicit. They're mentioned, and then gone.

In conclusion, read it. I found it a well written, fascinating book. To be honest, I was almost more interested in Ann Eliza's portion of the story, than Jordan's - maybe because I know that hers is (mostly) true.

The depictions of the reality of polygamy (gone mad, some would say) are a harsh thing, to be sure. It's the dark side, I suppose, where women are raised and taught by men in power that their very salvation depends on them accepting as many wives as their husband wants, and having no real say in it. True, I know that there are women out there that choose a polygamous lifestyle, knowing full well what they are getting into - women who have a clear choice, and take a path that the majority of us would never. While I neither agree with, nor understand their choice, they do so choose - but the women here, in this book (and these women exist in reality as well), have no real choice. Born into it, raised in it, told over and over again that without acceptance of it, they will have no eternal life, what choice is there? The word choice implies that they have another option - and these women really didn't.

And now, I'm off to read an anthology about Dracula. My tastes are weird varied.


  1. I read this book last summer. I didnt like it. I was kind of bored with it.

    books with some form of religious background music fasinate me. this left me cold. I couldnt work out what the point was? unless to upset mormons or to highlight FLDS and the treatent of their women?

    I liked the red tent more

  2. It's good to get your thoughts on the book. Thanks for sharing your opinion of it. I enjoyed Ann Eliza's story better as well. It helped me understand Mormons/FLDS and polygamy a bit better.

  3. Slice,

    Hmm...well, as in all forms of entertainment, mileage will vary.

    What was the point? What's the point of any novel being written? To tell a good story, to entertain, and/or to make money. I don't think that the idea was to upset the Mormon's or the FLDS. If it was the point, it certainly failed, because I don't recall any hubbub about the book when it was released. I mean, that particularly embarrassing ship has sailed a long time ago. People know that Mormons practised polygamy and that certain sects (most notably the FLDS) still do practice it.

    I won't argue, though, that the Red Tent was better. :)

  4. Susanne,

    Thanks for recc'ing it. I really did enjoy the book a lot.


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