This is it: the final stop on David Ebershoff's blog tour in support of his new novel, The 19th Wife. I finished the book a little over two weeks ago, just before I had the opportunity to hear David speak about the novel at the Texas Book Festival where he was informally questioned by author Amanda Eyre Ward. I enjoyed the discussion and gained some insight from it into what doing the "live" research was like for David, including his visit to a grocery store in a very closed, polygamous community where he had rather naively hoped to speak with some of the community's women.
My thoughts on the book follow:
David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife is a big book - from its nearly 600-page length, to its fascinating recounting of the epic early days of the Mormon religion, to the multitude of first-person voices so deftly handled by Ebershoff, and on to the vast amount of research material (both real and fictional) that was used to breathe life into so many memorable characters. But most importantly, it is a big book because of the way that it so seamlessly combines current news events so many of us have followed in recent years (like the raid by Texas authorities on the Yearning for Zion ranch in which dozens of children were taken from polygamous families) with an intriguing history of the origins of one of America’s major religions.
At the heart of Ebershoff’s story is the actual 1875 memoir written by Ann Eliza Young about her experiences as the 19th wife of Brigham Young, Wife No. 19. In reality Young likely had married more than 50 women by the time he added Ann Eliza and her two children to his family, a total of which Ann Eliza was unaware at the time of her wedding. The 19th Wife details exactly how the practice of polygamy and the Mormon faith crossed paths and ultimately became so intertwined that the single issue of polygamy came close to destroying the religion and many of its members. For a time, armed conflict between the church and the United States government seemed inevitable and Ann Eliza’s exposé may have inadvertently saved the religion by embarrassing its leadership into denouncing the practice of polygamy once and for all.
Ebershoff’s fictionalized version of Ann Eliza’s original memoir is presented in alternating chapters with his account of a modern day murder investigation involving another 19th wife, this one part of a First Latter Day Saints (usually referred to as “Firsts” in the book) family in Mesadale, Utah. These Firsts are not members of the Mormon faith. Rather, they consider themselves to be the descendents of the true faith founded by Joseph Smith, a religion in which polygamy continues to play a major role.
Jordan Scott, a 20-year-old who had been expelled from the Mesadale community several years earlier, has made a new life for himself in California but he still feels compelled to keep up with what is going on in Mesadale via the internet. That is how he comes to learn that his mother has been charged with his father’s murder and that, if convicted, she could face the death penalty. Jordan returns to Utah to see his mother for the first time since she dumped him on the side of the highway to begin life on his own and, almost despite himself, he comes to believe that his mother is innocent of the murder.
At first, the chapter-by-chapter transition from the 19th century diary to 21st century Utah is a little jarring. But soon, the similarities between the experiences of the two 19th wives become clear, the book settles into a comfortable rhythm, and the reader comes to understand that Joseph Smith’s decision to make polygamy central to his religion is still impacting the lives of some Americans more than 100 years later.
The 19th Wife is excellent historical fiction, well-researched and filled with numerous characters who give life to the early days of the Latter Day Saints. But even more significantly, it explores the topic of polygamy from several points-of-view: those of the husband, the wife, and the children who grow up along side tens of brothers and sisters in a dormitory lifestyle.
As is so vividly portrayed in The 19th Wife, polygamy has been outlawed in this country for good reason. Some of those reasons are more obvious than others, including the fact that so many young girls are married off to men a generation or two older than them, men who are sometimes blood relatives of theirs, men they are forced to marry despite whatever misgivings they might have. A more recent phenomenon sees young boys (such as Jordan Scott), known these days as “lost boys,” on some pretense or another being pushed out of the only community they know in their early teens so that they will not be around to compete for the hands of girls of the same age.
Wives find it difficult to maintain their dignity in polygamous relationships that require them to compete for the affections of their husband, a constant competition that they are doomed to lose as years pass and younger wives continue to be added to the family. Brigham Young himself set the precedent of counting as “wives” only those with whom he still shared a bed, something that Ann Eliza only learned well into her marriage. She found that, instead of being wife number nineteen, she was more likely to be wife number fifty-two, nineteen of whom were still sleeping with Young.
And, finally, the more introspective husbands involved in polygamous households, men for whom such a system would seem to be perfectly tailored, sometimes express regret that they simply do not have enough hours in the day to get to know all of their numerous children. These men come to realize that being a good father and husband is measured in terms of quality relationships, not in the number of children they father or the number of wives they have, and that realization comes to haunt some of them.
Bottom line, this book is about the children who grow up in a social setting among dozens of peers and adults in what must seem more a boarding school than a family home. It is about the rights of children, rights denied them by the very lifestyle they are being forced to live.
David Ebershoff has written a book, a big book, one that deserves a wide audience.
Rated at: 5.0