In the year since I renounced my Mormon faith, and set out to tell the nation the truth about American polygamy, many people have wondered why I ever agreed to become a plural wife. [First Sentence]
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
Random House, 2008
Fiction; 514 pgs
Religion is a subject that fascinates me in general, in particular the historical evolution of various faiths. When I first heard about David Ebershoff's The 19th Wife, I knew I would read it. Although a work of fiction, the historical background of the book is probably what drew me to it the most. I had expected the personal stories that emerged from the novel, but I had not expected such an expansive history lesson too. In his acknowledgments, the author reminds readers that his book is a work of fiction. The novel is well researched, and while the author did take liberties in weaving together his story, many of the details are accurate as recorded through history. I especially love it when a novel inspires me to do further research on my own about a particular topic, and this one certainly did.
The novel is divided into two stories. There is the story of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of the well-known Brigham Young, Prophet of the Church of Latter Day Saints. The novel takes us through her life, beginning before her birth, with her parents’ adoption to the Mormon faith and their eventual meeting and marriage. Ann Eliza was a strong minded woman who took her faith seriously. She was, however, opposed to polygamy, an institution that Prophet Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supported in his later years. Through her parents' experiences and her own, she knew the turmoil that polygamy could cause. She would later take up the mantle opposing the practice of plural marriages, leaving behind nearly everything she knew and held dear, including her faith. Ann Eliza was a hero to some, and to others a spiteful and vengeful ex-wife. Regardless, her story is one that played a part in the passage of stronger anti-bigamy laws. The LDS Church itself underwent major changes, barring the practice as well.
The switch in practice and doctrine led to a splintering of the Church. Small groups of people who supported and believed that the practice of plural marriages was divined by God, broke off from the LDS Church, forming their own groups. Polygamy still exists today. This leads to Jordan Scott's story. He is a lost boy, abandoned by his mother on the side of the road when he was 14 years old by orders of the Prophet. He grew up in an isolated Utah community. His mother was the 19th wife of a well-respected man in the community of Mesadale. Now an adult and living in California, Jordan is sure he will never see his mother again.
However, when word reaches Jordan that his mother has been arrested for his father's murder, Jordan decides to return to the place he despises the most. He packs his bags, jumps in his van, joined by his faithful companion, Elecktra, and heads to Utah. He is not sure what he will do, but after meeting with his mother and talking with her attorney, he decides to look into the murder himself. To do this, Jordan must face his past.
The two stories run parallel throughout the book, hints of connection appearing here and there. The author brings the stories together in a creative and unexpected way. The format of the book reminded me a little of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, written in narrative, book excerpts, articles, letters and even a Wikipedia entry. In interviews, the author has stated that he wanted to allow the voices of the varying experiences and opinions to be heard on the subject of polygamy—and it worked, although the case against it is perhaps the strongest of all.
I would be hard pressed to tell you which of the two stories I was most taken with. In the beginning, I was most drawn to Jordan's story. He was a castaway who had not only endured a difficult childhood, but also had been forced to grow up too quickly. I have read and heard horror stories of real life children thrust into Jordan's situation, excommunicated by their religious leaders and left to fend for themselves. My heart went out to Jordan and for Johnny, a boy Jordan befriends along the way.
And yet, Ann Eliza's story also captivated me, especially once she took center stage in her own story. In the novel, she comes across as a strong woman who certainly had her weaknesses, but she also knew her own mind. I admire her courage in standing up for what she believed. I cannot even imagine what it must have been like for her, to let go of the life and faith that made up her world--the only one she had ever known.
Jordan and Ann Eliza were just two of the amazing characters in The 19th Wife. The novel was full of interesting characters, each of them complex. I only wish I had more time to spend with some of the more minor ones. Jordan’s mother was one such character, a 19th wife who is facing charges of murder. Despite her circumstances, she stands resolute in her faith. Then there was Tom, excommunicated from the LDS church because of his homosexuality, and Kelly Dee, a college student at Brigham Young University, whose heart is not only in the right place, but is someone who is actually doing something to right the wrongs of the past.
There is so much to this book; so much I would like to say. While the subject of polygamy is perhaps the overreaching subject of the novel, it is the personal stories which truly make this novel what it is. I highly recommend David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife.
To learn more about Ann Eliza Young, check out her two autobiographies: Wife No. 19 (1875) and Life in Mormon Bondage (1908).
Rating: (Very Good +)
Author David Ebershoff was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about his book.
Literary Feline: What inspired you to write The 19th Wife?
David Ebershoff: Seven years ago I was speaking to a professor of 19th century women’s history. We were having a wide-ranging conversation, and she was telling me all these wonderful stories about 19th century American women. Then she mentioned Ann Eliza Young, who was once widely known as the 19th Wife. The 19th Wife? What a strange number in front of the word wife. And so I asked, Who was the 19th Wife? And then I began to wonder, What was it like to be the 19th Wife? And with those questions in mind I began writing this novel.
LF: I like how you linked the past narrative with the present. Can you talk a little about why you decided to follow two storylines through the book instead of telling only the historical tale?
DE: Once I started researching Ann Eliza’s life, I realized I was also researching a larger story: the history of polygamy in the United States. But that history didn’t end in 1890, when the Mormon Church changed its position on polygamy. Since then, American polygamy has had a whole second act. Polygamists today, of course, are not Mormons. (And Mormons today do not practice polygamy.) But the story continues, and I wanted to write a novel that would perhaps give a reader a sense of the entire complicated history of plural marriage in the United States.
LF: What sort of research did you do for The 19th Wife?
DE: Ann Eliza Young left an abundance of materials about herself. She wrote two memoirs, she lectured widely, she testified to Congress, and for a few years the newspapers followed her nearly everywhere. So I had access to all of that. In addition, I read many biographies about people from this time, as well as diaries, memoirs, letters, and many newspaper accounts. I also traveled to nearly all the places in the book in order to render the various settings. And I spent a few months studying the Mormon faith, reading the Book of Mormon and the other texts, attending Sunday services, and speaking with many people about their faith.
LF: One of the issues that especially touched me was that of the lost boys. How big of a problem is it today and do you have any suggestions about how it could be handled?
DE: In the past ten to twenty years, I would estimate this has happened to a few hundred boys and young men. It’s heartbreaking for many reasons, but especially because they are expelled by the people they love the most, their family. In the past several years organizations have popped up to help kids and women leave polygamous communities and families. Many people wonder what should be done about polygamy, if anything at all. No one wants to infringe on the religious freedom of others, but it’s hard not to wonder about the children in these families. It’s hard not ask, What is best for them? And, What would I want if that were me? THE 19TH WIFE doesn’t reach any final conclusions about polygamy; instead it raises the issue from many points of view and lets the reader form his or her own opinions.
LF: Are there any questions that you have not been asked that you wish someone would ask? If so, how would you answer?
DE: Many people have asked about Jordan’s dog, Elektra, who is inspired by my own dog, Elektra. She’s even received fan mail (and it’s all going to her head and she was already an egomaniac). But no one has asked about Tom’s dog, Joey. He too is inspired by a real dog, Joey Brownstein, a sweet, handsome, loving Golden who passed away in 2006. We miss him.
LF: What was the first story you ever put to paper about?
DE: About being fifteen, pimply, and twisted with angst. It was impenetrable.
LF: Are you reading anything at the moment?
DE: I just re-read THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE for the seminar I’m teaching this fall on historical fiction. If you haven’t read it since grade school, do yourself a favor. I’m now re-reading Joyce Carol Oates’s BLACK WATER (also for school). It’s a short, terrifying masterpiece that will give you nightmares. And I’m reading a fantastic new novel by Pearl Abraham that will come out in early 2010. It’s loosely inspired by the story of the American Taliban. She’s fiercely intelligent and she has written a great, great book that I know many people will love and discuss.
Many thanks to David Ebershoff for taking the time to answer my questions. I also want to thank the author and TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to be a part of this book tour.
I am giving away a copy of The 19th Wife. If you would like to enter the giveaway, be sure and leave a comment telling me why you want to read this book. Please include your e-mail address in your comment. The deadline to enter is November 7th at 11:59 p.m. (PST).
Check out the author's website for more information about his books. Also, you can read and listen to the author answer questions about his work at the following places:
Q&A with the author
Listen to David's interview with Scott Simon on NPR Weekend Edition
Listen to David's interview on Wisconsin Public Radio
Listen to David's interview on Radio Curious
David Ebershoff’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:
Wednesday, Oct. 15th: Maw Books
Friday, Oct. 17th: Reading, ‘Riting, and Retirement
Monday, Oct. 20th: She Is Too Fond Of Books (An Interview with the Author)
Tuesday, Oct. 21st: Age 30 - A Year in Books
Thursday, Oct. 23rd: A High and Hidden Place
Monday, Oct. 27th: It’s All About Books (and a Guest Post)
Thursday, Oct. 30th: Books on the Brain
Monday, Nov. 3rd: The Cottage Nest
Tuesday, Nov. 4th: B&B ex libris
Wednesday, Nov. 5th: Anniegirl1138
Thursday, Nov. 6th: The Tome Traveller
Friday, Nov. 7th: Educating Petunia
Monday, Nov. 10th: The Literate Housewife
Wednesday, Nov. 12th: Diary of an Eccentric
Friday, Nov. 14th: Book Chase
Other Blog Reviews of The 19th Wife:
A Reading Life
She Reads and Reads
A Writer's Pen