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David Ebershoff – The 19th Wife

May 25, 2008

LibraryThing Early Reviewers70. The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff (August 2008)

Length: 587 pages

Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery

Started: 24 May 2008
Finished: 25 May 2008

Summary: The 19th Wife contains intertwined stories: a modern-day murder mystery, and a historical account about the early days of Mormonism. In the modern story, Jordan Scott is a “lost boy” – a child of a polygamous sect that persists in the deserts of Utah, dumped on the side of the highway when he fourteen. Now he’s twenty and living in L.A., until he sees the front page headline: His mother, the 19th of 20-plus wives, has been arrested for murdering his father. Jordan knows instinctively that she’s innocent, but in going back, he’s forced to face the family, lifestyle, and faith that abandoned him, and the scars that his childhood left on his heart. Running parallel to Jordan’s story is the (fictionalized but true) story of Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young’s wives, and the one who in her publicized divorce and outspoken apostasy to the Mormon church helped to bring about national reform of polygamy laws.

Review: The question of polygamy has always been a thorny one in my own personal ethical code. I believe pretty strongly in not only the correctness, but also the vital necessity of the separation of church and state, and so legislation against polygamy as a religious practice always rubs me in exactly the worst way. And yet, in the wake of recent widely-publicized cases, the social realities of the practice of polygamy tend to be horrible enough, particularly where the children are concerned, that part of me says “we should really do something about that.” (Although I do wonder if the fact that it’s illegal isn’t a contributing factor to the horrible social outcomes, much like illegal drugs – if polygamists weren’t forced to live so far off the grid, wouldn’t it be easier to keep an eye out for child abuse, rape, and give those women who wanted a way out the means to do so?) In any case, reading The 19th Wife didn’t solve any moral dilemnas for me, even though it comes down pretty vehemently on the anti-polygamy side, but it definitely did make me reconsider the issue, as well as providing some background and historical perspective about the beginning of the Mormon faith and the practice of polygamy of which I was previously unaware.

As a novel, it’s quite good, although not without its faults. It was absolutely an absorbing read, and is a thick book without being long – the almost 600 pages passed quickly and without dragging. The writing itself was nothing special, no fancy literary tricks, but it got the job done without getting in its own way. There were elements that I didn’t think worked quite as well as the author had intended – in the modern storyline, especially, there were a few character elements and sub-plots that seemed extraneous. I also was a little put off by the format of the historical sections. Not so much by the format per se, which was a combination of (fictional) memoirs, letters, interviews, and articles, but more by the decision to fictionalize documents that actually exist. Ebershoff explains this to a degree in his author’s note, but Ann Eliza’s memoir actually exists (and can be read online at Google Books), and so the fact that he re-wrote it but presented it as actual excerpts a) leads to her language, if not her perspective, feeling overly modern and therefore historically inaccurate, and b) seems like he didn’t trust her to properly tell her own story. It’s a relatively minor transgression on the grand scale of things, and didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book, but was always niggling in the back of my mind and had a tendency to pull me out of the story. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: An absorbing, intensely interesting, and very timely read now that Mormons are experiencing a bit of a vogue in pop culture. People who like HBO’s series Big Love would probably enjoy this book (and vice-versa), although I think it would also appeal to anyone interested in a unique bit of American religious history.

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First Line: In the one 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.

Vocab:

  • p. 34: “The news out of Salt Lake’s seraglio has caught even our attention.” – the part of a Muslim house or palace in which the wives and concubines are secluded; harem.
    .
  • p. 49: “She accepted a position with Mrs. Harmony in her mansarded mansions with an ebony piano in the parlor.” – a hip roof, each face of which has a steeper lower part and a shallower upper part
    .
  • p. 49: “For his part, every day Captain Zucker gave Gilbert a new toy – cloth balls, jackstraws, and a quoits set with a bright red hob.” – a game in which rings of rope or flattened metal are thrown at an upright peg, the object being to encircle it or come as close to it as possible.
    .
  • p. 283: “Although it was autumn, the weather had een especially hot, and Brigham was wearing his summer costume familiar to all in Deseret: the prunella suit, a vivid white shirt kept pristine by his laundress daughter, Claire, and a neck cloth.” – a smooth-faced fabric made of mixed fibers or wool, formerly used in the manufacture of women’s dresses and of robes for clerics, scholars, and lawyers.
    .
  • p. 288: “A coloratura soprano imported from Wadowice, where the beautiful girls are dark and cold.” – a lyric soprano of high range who specializes in music with runs, trills, and other florid decorations.
    .
6 Comments leave one →
  1. Melissa permalink
    July 7, 2008 11:35 pm

    Great book! I would also highly recommend reading What Peace There May Be, by Susanna Barlow. Another great book on polygamy and the escape from it. The writing is simple yet powerful, and I love the way the story is told from the child’s perspective.

  2. August 6, 2008 7:36 pm

    I’ll be interested in meeting Mr Ebershoff next week at our local bookstore (Rakestraw). I have reservations about the book before reading it because my mother-in-law was a very happy youngest daughter of a first wife of her polygamist father. She (my mother-in-law)has written her life history and just remembers a kind father and lots of brothers and sisters. Each polygamist wife (who happened to be sisters) had eight children, so she was one of 16. My husband had 101 first cousins! (His other grandmother had 14 children with no polygamy involved.)
    Joan Hamblin

  3. September 5, 2008 3:02 pm

    “…if polygamists weren’t forced to live so far off the grid, wouldn’t it be easier to keep an eye out for child abuse, rape, and give those women who wanted a way out the means to do so?”

    Exactly right. Oppressing alternate family structures forces them into the shadows the same way that alcohol became a source of crime during Prohibition. We still haven’t learned our leason from that one.

  4. October 26, 2008 7:16 pm

    I just posted a review of the book on my site. I really enjoyed this book, I felt that I learned a lot more, and I wasn’t aware that polygamy was really still being practiced in the US. The more I read and looked online – wow!!

    I’ve added a link to your review on mine – I hope that was ok!

    :) Wendi
    http://wendisbookcorner.blogspot.com

  5. August 15, 2010 12:30 pm

    I am just now reading and enjoying the read. Thank you for the review. I will be putting my comments up soo as well. I would like to thank one of the contributers that talked about her family with polygamy. I would love to hear her perspective. But I do agree with the family and abuse. It is just too much for me to understand. I feel sorry for the children. No matter how you cut it is abuse. The man just used his power to get away with marrying all these women. Now in present time and in LSD. It is like the harem in the bible of Esther. Just a thought. Sorry to get in a tangent.

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