The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Book Cover:  The 19th WifeThe 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through various viewpoints and many different types of forms: Ann Eliza’s memoir, Brigham Young’s journal, letters, historical documents, email, and even Wikipedia articles.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 polygamyMore 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.

23 comments


  1. Your review was a bit thought-provoking for me, particularly your comment that you didn’t know if you had the faith to participate in a polygamous relationship. I’m not LDS, and my exposure to the LDS faith is pretty limited. But I am a Christian, and one of the things I was thinking about as I read your review was, “What would I be willing to do in the name of my faith?” And like you, I don’t know if I could do it. It’s something to take some time to think about.

    This comment isn’t meant to question your beliefs, just making me consider my own.

    Anyway, I thought this was a wonderful review!

    on October 16th, 2008 at 11:59 pm
  2. Wonderful review, Natasha! Especially your personal opinion considering your own family connection with LDS. It’s going on my wishlist.

    on October 17th, 2008 at 1:18 am
  3. I imagine it would be difficult to read a book containing historical characters who you already feel like you know, and to see those characters presented totally differently than you have always seen them. I’ve heard great things about this book and really enjoyed reading your unique perspective based on your family history and spiritual beliefs. Thanks for sharing it all!

    on October 17th, 2008 at 1:35 am
  4. Great review. Very interesting that you have the history of polygamous marriages on both sides of your family! I’m nearly done with Shattered Dreams, and I don’t know if I can read another tome anytime soon about polygamy, but The 19th Wife is very tempting!

    on October 17th, 2008 at 5:06 am
  5. I’m reading this book right now and I am really enjoying it. I am not LDS, but there is an LDS church in our neighborhood, so we have quite a few LDS neighbors. I have discussed part of this book with one of them, and I think you are right, it is important to remember that this is a work of fiction and should be enjoyed as such.

    on October 17th, 2008 at 5:55 am
  6. Very nice review. I am not LDS and don’t know a lot about the LDS Church. However, I do understand that it is very difficult to review a book that challenges our perceptions of people we feel we know through our faith and keep it balanced. I thought you did a wonderful job.

    I added this to my TBR list.

    on October 17th, 2008 at 6:47 am
  7. I really appreciate your review. I grew up LDS, too. I remember once reading a book about a Mormon pioneer girl who fell in love with a Native American boy- and the portrayal of Joseph Smith in that book disturbed me, because it was very different from how I had perceived the man before. So I understand how you felt about that. I used to wonder about polygamy, myself. I have pioneer ancestors, but if any lived the principle, I’m unaware of it. I’m glad I didn’t live in that time, because I don’t think I’d be able to live that way myself.

    on October 17th, 2008 at 7:54 am
  8. Natasha, thanks for the really thoughtful review. I’m LDS (and I have a great great grandfather who practiced polygamy), and I’ve been shying away from this book for that reason. So, I too needed to be reminded that it’s fiction! It would be interesting to read about “the other side” in a fictional book.

    on October 17th, 2008 at 10:08 am
  9. I really liked your review. Sometimes it’s hard to read a work of fiction where historical figures are involved and the portayal of them in the book is different than your own vision of them. I commend you for being able to realize this is a work of fiction.

    I loved your comparision to the DaVinci Code. So many people were upset about the ideas and fictionalization of real-life characters. I certainly hope no one would walk away from either of these books and think this was a true portayal of how Christians or Mormans truly are.

    I find non-fiction books on religion very, very interesting and would highly suggest that anyone reading a book such as this look up the background of the religion. I took a few World Religion classes in college only to fill in as electives, but they turned out to be some of my favorite classes.

    Natasha, very interesting about you AND your husband coming from polygamist pioneering families.

    My husband was reading over my shoulder as I read your review and commented on the title of the book, “19 wives? You mean all at once? I can barely handle one!” Thanks sweetheart, I love you too.

    on October 17th, 2008 at 10:17 am
  10. Thanks Natatsha. That was a great review. I think many of us LDS descendants have come from polygamist backgrounds. I know I have, but although as hard as it was to live that way I believe the spirit of polygamy then was much different than it is now. I agree with you though, I don’t think I would ever be able to live that principle. It’s good I live nowadays when our church doesn’t ask that of us anymore.

    on October 17th, 2008 at 11:00 am
  11. Natasha, this is so interesting to read your perspective on the LDS church and your family history! I’ve also written about my Mormon ancestors (the link stopped with my grandparents) in my writing about The 19th Wife. To my knowledge, none of them practiced polygamy.

    Great review.

    on October 17th, 2008 at 11:36 am
  12. Thanks for the review. I won this book in an online drawing and it is sitting under my bed, unread. I wasn’t sure I’d like reading the fictionalized life of BY but maybe I’ll pick it up and try…

    on October 17th, 2008 at 3:06 pm
  13. Definitely NOT my type of book but I enjoyed your review of it very much. =D I shall link it to my blog. Thanks for your thoughts!

    on October 18th, 2008 at 2:03 am
  14. Natasha – this is a wonderful essay sharing how reading *The 19th Wife* impacted you as a member of the LDS Church. You draw a great parallel between *The 19th Wife*/LDS and *DaVinci Code*/Catholicism; a word of caution to us all.

    I attended a reading David did here in the Boston area, and I was impressed with the research he did, and the questions he was able to answer. He was also honest to say “I don’t know” to a question that surpassed his knowledge.

    The practice of plural marriage as required by faith is an interesting one. It certainly helped me to understand WHY someone would submit to the practice (back when it was accepted doctrine), even though we find it distasteful today.

    I posted a review of *The 19th Wife* today. David has agreed to an “online interview” of questions posted there, if your readers have anything they’d like to ask him.

    on October 20th, 2008 at 2:36 pm
  15. Very interesting sounding book, although I probably won’t read it any time soon.

    I’m also LDS and I’m reading a biography of Joseph Smith, written by a Mormon, and it’s fascinating to see that, yes these prophets we have concepts of were truly humans that made lots of mistakes. Sometimes they weren’t very likeable.

    That said, apparently lots of the “facts” of Ann Eliza Young’s memoirs can’t be held as very accurate, but that’s only what I’m learning according to this Joseph Smith biography. I’d never heard of her before.

    on October 21st, 2008 at 10:30 am
  16. I’d just like to add that not everyone practiced polygamy. It was not a requirement of everyone in Mormon society.

    But, yes, it may have been a faith-challenge had my family been one that was asked to participate.

    on October 21st, 2008 at 10:51 am
  17. [...] Maw Books – Natasha is LDS so this review is a must read [...]

    on October 23rd, 2008 at 6:13 am
  18. I’m looking forward to reading this book. It’s next in my pile. I thought your review was interesting and raises some important points. I’m not LDS and I don’t know much about LDS, but I’m able to understand that the book is fiction. I’m Catholic, so when you made that point about The DaVinci Code, I completely understood what you meant! When I read books like these, it makes me want to do some research to hear the other side of the story.

    on October 23rd, 2008 at 8:31 am
  19. Very interesting book, and you wrote a very thoughtful analysis.

    on October 26th, 2008 at 1:24 pm
  20. [...] Thursday, Oct. 16th:  Maw Books (review) [...]

    on October 29th, 2008 at 11:22 pm
  21. [...] Thursday, Oct. 16th:  Maw Books (review) [...]

    on October 29th, 2008 at 11:28 pm
  22. Natasha, thanks so much for this review and for giving us your unique perspective on The 19th Wife. I loved this book and your thoughts have given me even more to think about. Would it be OK with you if I linked to your review on mine?

    on January 23rd, 2009 at 8:15 pm
  23. Natasha, I thought you provided a unbiased look at this book. Your review was thoughtful and sensitive. Cool to find our that you are LDS, too.

    on March 30th, 2009 at 3:41 pm

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