The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff is two books in one. One a historical fiction, the other a modern murder mystery. The first thread recounts the life of Ann Eliza Young, the apostate plural wife to Brigham Young, prophet and leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ann Eliza grew up in the LDS church in a relatively happy polygamous home, crossed the plains from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City, and was stalwart in her faith. After becoming the 19th wife of Brigham Young, she renounced her faith, left the church, and became one of the country’s largest advocates in bringing legislature in Washington against polygamy and published her famous memoir, also called The 19th Wife.
The second thread is that of Jordan, who grew up in a polygamous sect called the Firsts on the Utah/Arizona border. As a teenager, he was kicked out and became a “lost boy.” Now gay and living in California, he finds out that his mother, also a 19th wife, has been arrested for murdering his father. He returns to the community that he hates to find out exactly what happened and if his mom really is guilty.
The 19th Wife is told through various viewpoints and many different types of forms: Ann Eliza’s memoir, Brigham Young’s journal, letters, historical documents, email, and even Wikipedia articles. Personally, I’m not so sure that this was a format that worked for me. I liked the alternating viewpoints but was unsure of why a master’s thesis’, message boards, and Wikipedia articles enhanced the reading of the book. It felt a bit forced. Personally, I guess I would have preferred the story to unfold more naturally and could have also done without some of the subplots. But overall, the sum of the parts made a impressive whole.
The 19th Wife was a straightforward read, but one that was beautiful (albeit the vulgar language) in the telling. David Ebershoff is a talented writer with a gift for story-telling. I know that countless hours, days, weeks, and months went into research and that writing about religion and polygamy is a huge undertaking. I applaud his subject matter as it gives a great insight into the the type of faith and belief that people must have to enter into a polygamous relationship. Yet, he illustrates quite well how detrimental those relationships are emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
I also know that for many readers The 19th Wife may very well be their first introduction into either polygamy, the LDS church or both. I was asked by another blogger, what the LDS church currently thought about Ann Eliza and whether or not she and her father were portrayed accurately in the book, to which I replied, I have no idea! The 19th Wife is my first introduction into Ann Eliza, and although I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I’d never heard of her. I don’t think I could name any of Brigham Young’s wives. It was just as difficult for me, as I’m sure it is for others not of the LDS faith, to figure out what was fact and what was fiction. And to tell you the truth this makes me nervous.
First and foremost, what I believe people need to realize when reading The 19th Wife is that it is not an authoritative biography of either the people portrayed or the events depicted. It is a work of fiction and I think it would be well for people to remember that. I’m sure I’ve been guilty while reading other historical books and taking everything at face value. David Ebershoff included an author’s note at the end of the book that states:
This is a work of fiction. It is not meant to be read as a stand-in for a biography of Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young, or any of the other historical figures who appear in it. Even so, it’s human nature to wonder if a historical novel is inspired by real people and real events, and if so to what degree, and thus I feel an obligation to the reader to begin to answer that question.
Anyone attempting to write about the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even a sliver of it, will immediately encounter the difficult task of accuracy. That is because on nearly every issue in the Church’s past, and in regard to every person who has played a part in the Church’s often remarkable life, there are at least two, and typically more, combative opinions on what each side sincerely calls “the truth.”
. . . Is The 19th Wife based on real people and real events? Yes. Have I invented much of it? Yes, for that is what novelists do.
I found myself with mixed feelings while reading The 19th Wife. One, the story was fascinating and engaging. But two, the characters whom I love and regard such as Brigham Young and Joseph Smith were completely unrecognizable to me. I didn’t know these people. I had a hard time wrapping my head around the way their personalities and beliefs were portrayed. I had to keep reminding myself, just as David Ebershoff states, there are two sides to every story. This is another side.
Having said that it is my hope that nobody will pick up The 19th Wife and then walk away believing every word written. In this case, in order to make a full opinion on any the persons or events portrayed in the book, one would do well to pick up additional books on the matter. It would be like learning everything I need to know about Catholic’s from The DaVinci Code, which we all know is crazy.
Random (but not so random) sidetrack: Should I mention that I had my wedding luncheon at the Lion House, Brigham Young’s home? Yep, I did. Not only that, but I have a background of polygamy in my family. They were early Mormon pioneers. It’s very common to look at our genealogy and see six to seven wives listed. The same goes for my husband’s family. Sounds ironic, doesn’t it? Polygamy shaped who I am today. Having said that, I feel that I should state that I believe polygamy is one of the worst institutions that exists in this country. It’s very hard to wrap my head around the thought that members of the LDS church were once asked to practice it. I understand the doctrine behind it but still find it difficult to know that many made the sacrifice to live polygamy to build up the kingdom of God. I don’t think I would have been faithful enough to live it. Although many married simply for the reason to be taken care of due to being widowed and such. Families were simply taking care of each other. If you’d like the church’s official statement on polygamy, that can be found here.
I believe that a lot of people will love The 19th Wife. I certainly found it most interesting to read and couldn’t put it down, if not simply for the subject matter, although I certainly have some misgivings. David Ebershoff is a super nice guy and it was my pleasure to attend a reading of The 19th Wife earlier last month. I do have to tell the truth, meeting him did change my perspective while reading the book. I really believe his heart is in the right place.
Earlier this year I read and reviewed Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist Wife by Irene Spencer and Escape by Carolyn Jessop. I loved both of these memoirs and both are going down as two of the best books I’ve read all year. If polygamy is a subject matter that interests you, I would highly recommend them.
As a disclaimer, I thought I should state that these are my opinions only and they do not represent the opinions of members of the LDS church or it’s leaders. They are mine alone. I’m open to all comments but don’t want to get into the questioning of one’s beliefs. I didn’t address the theology presented in the book and don’t intent to debate it. I have the utmost confidence that you, as always, will be respectful. So comment away. What do you think?
Links of interest: The 19th Wife website, Wife No. 19 by Ann Eliza Young, LDS Church statement on polygamy. More blogger reviews.
Genre: Historical Fiction and Modern Murder Mystery
Publisher: Random House. August 5, 1008.
Hardcover, 514 pages. ISBN 1400063973
The 19th Wife is available from your favorite independent bookstore, Powell’s and Amazon.