The 19th Wife is David Ebershoff’s award winning novel that combines two stories – a historical fiction account of Ann Eliza Young – the 19th wife of Morman leader Brigham Young – and a modern day murder mystery of a 19th wife in jail for killing her husband.
I was completely rapt by both narratives, but perhaps a little more so by that of Ann Eliza. She divorced Brigham and toured the country after publishing a her memoir Wife No. 19, crusading to end polygamy and advancing women’s rights. I was fascinated and eager to learn the history of the church and its early practices. I read Shattered Dreams a few years ago – loved it – but how polygamy became a part of church history was still a mystery.
If one point fascinated me most it was the suggestion that polygamy probably would not have become a part of the early church doctrine had Joseph Smith not been martyred a few days after he gave his “revelation” about the practice to other church leaders. Those other church leaders thought Smith was wrong and was looking for a way to justify the immorality he was already practicing. But when he was killed by a mob while in prison (after giving himself up voluntarily), there had not been time to question the revelation, and rather than mar his reputation, they labeled him a martyr and accepted all of his preaching.
The modern story that is intertwined is that of a son who was expelled from the church when he was 14 because he was gay. Now that he’s a young man, his mother – who dropped him off alone in the middle of the night on an empty highway – is in jail for killing her husband. Jordan believes his mother is innocent, for the simple reason that the killing is so contrary to the complete faith he knows his mother to have for the church. However, helping her become free means that he has to go back and face the people who hate him and declared him an enemy of the religion.
I don’t think this is considered a spoiler, but let me say how disappointed I was when I read in the appendix that all the “documentation” for the Brigham Young part of the story was created by the author. It was some consolation that it was all based on the real stuff, but a let down nonetheless. The modern story serves to further expose how the practice of polygamy is used and manipulated by men to justify sex with whoever and however many they want. I know that I’m making a sweeping generalization and that not everyone who practices it is a sex-crazed, pedophile, rapist, but I do believe that there are enough men out there who fit into one, two or three of these categories who are excusing their behavior in the name of religion to justify the stereotype.
Regardless of your thoughts on polygamy, if you are all interested in the culture, have read previous books related to polygamy that you enjoyed or appreciate historical or feminist fiction, this is a book you’ll enjoy. If you’ve read it, let me know what you think.
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