The 19th Wife – David Ebershoff
It is 1875, and Ann Eliza Young has recently separated from her powerful husband, Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon Church. Expelled and an outcast, Ann Eliza embarks on a crusade to end polygamy in the United States. A rich account of her family’s polygamous history is revealed, including how both she and her mother became plural wives. Yet soon after Ann Eliza’s story begins, a second exquisite narrative unfolds–a tale of murder involving a polygamist family in present-day Utah. Jordan Scott, a young man who was thrown out of his fundamentalist sect years earlier, must reenter the world that cast him aside in order to discover the truth behind his father’s death.
Review: This book sat on my to-be-read shelf for a year before I read it. It’s an intimidating book, okay? Over 500 pages of Mormon history blended with fictional plotlines. The font is tiny. I didn’t know if my limited attention span could handle it.
Turns out, I can handle it. Actually, I kind of loved it.
There’s a lot of stuff packed into this 500+ page brick. The story happens on two timelines. The first one is set in the 1800s. It’s a fictionalization of the life of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of the prophet Brigham Young. Ann Eliza isn’t sold on the whole polygamy thing. She’s sick of being abused by her sister wives and ignored by her husband. She decides to leave the Mormon Church and tell the world what really goes on in a polygamist household.
The second major plotline is completely fictional. It’s set in modern times and stars twenty-year-old Jordan Scott. Jordan grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon community that still practices polygamy, but he has been kicked out. Several years after leaving his community, Jordan’s father is murdered, and his mother is arrested for the crime. Jordan doesn’t believe she’s guilty. Can he use his insider knowledge of polygamist families to prove which sister wife committed the crime?
I’ve read an embarrassing amount of stuff about Mormon history and religion-based polygamy. Almost all the stuff I’ve read is nonfiction. I was nervous about how the topics would be handled in a novel. I hate it when religion is sensationalized and just used for shock value. I shouldn’t have worried: This book is unbelievably well-researched. History and fiction are blended so seamlessly that it can be hard to tell the difference sometimes. This is the kind of book that makes you want to Google everything to find out more.
One of the reasons this book is so long is that religion isn’t oversimplified. The author shows all the complexities surrounding Mormon fundamentalism. There are a lot of characters and a lot of perspectives, but I think most of them are necessary for the reader to get the full picture. Some characters are pro-polygamy, some are anti-polygamy, some don’t have an opinion. Some grew up in polygamist families and don’t know anything different. There are even a few mainstream Mormon characters who have no experience with polygamy and are looking at it as curious outsiders. I love that the author doesn’t shy away from complexity. The readers are left to draw their own conclusions.
“I must say a few words about memory. It is full of holes. If you were to lay it out upon a table, it would resemble a scrap of lace. I am a lover of history . . . [but] history has one flaw. It is a subjective art, no less so than poetry or music. . . . The historian writes a truth. The memoirist writes a truth. The novelist writes a truth. And so on.” – The 19th Wife
While I was reading, I kept flip-flopping on which of the plotlines I liked more. In the end, I liked Ann Eliza’s more. I think it’s brave when authors write from the points-of-view of real historical people. Jordan’s plot is really good, though. It’s funnier than I expected. The young characters are blunt, curious, and not afraid to ask questions.
“‘Isn't a gay Mormon like an oxymoron?’
‘Do I look like an oxymoron to you?’
‘An oxymormon.’” – The 19th Wife
Like I said earlier, this book is long and has a lot of POVs. I think it’s a little too long. The pacing slows down toward the end, and I was ready for it to be over. I don’t have a 500+ page attention span.
If you want to know about life in a Mormon polygamist family, then this book is a must-read. It’s well-researched and entertaining at the same time. I shouldn’t have waited so long to read it.
“I, of course, cherish my freedom, but I shall never want my freedom to restrict the freedom of another. In that case then I am not truly free, and none of us is truly free.” – The 19th Wife