The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
It is 1875, and Ann Eliza Young has recently separated from her powerful husband, Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon Church. Expelled and an outcast, Ann Eliza embarks on a crusade to end polygamy in the United States. A rich account of her family’s polygamous history is revealed, including how both she and her mother became plural wives. Yet soon after Ann Eliza’s story begins, a second exquisite narrative unfolds–a tale of murder involving a polygamist family in present-day Utah. Jordan Scott, a young man who was thrown out of his fundamentalist sect years earlier, must reenter the world that cast him aside in order to discover the truth behind his father’s death. And as Ann Eliza’s narrative intertwines with that of Jordan’s search, readers are pulled deeper into the mysteries of love, family, and faith.
I was born in Salt Lake City, where almost all of our neighbors were Mormons and sacred underwear hung on the laundry lines. We left when I was still a baby, so I don’t remember living there, but my mom’s stories about the city and her Mormon friends always interested me. And of course the scandalous history of polygamy was a draw to Ebershoff’s book.
The 19th Wife is centered mainly around polygamy (which is a fascinating topic itself), but it also recounts the beginning of the LDS Church and their evolution. Ann Eliza’s story is a mixture of praise for the church and scorn for it. Her story offered a really cool look at the beginnings of a religion and life in a theocracy. Jordan’s story allows readers a glimpse at modern-day cult life as he revisits the Firsts of Mesadale. The practices of both the early Mormons and the Firsts are controversial today, but Ebershoff points out the flaws in their belief systems without condemning the Mormons.
Both Ann Eliza and Jordan’s stories are both well researched, though I’m not sure which of the historical documents included (if any) are real and which are fabricated. Either way, the variety of texts, from letters to diaries to interviews, creates a many-sided and cunningly interwoven story. Jordan’s story and Ann Eliza’s go together well, combining the historical fiction and mystery dramas. They are both fantastically paced for the most part, although the book begins to drag towards the end. The romance in Jordan’s part of the book also felt a little bit forced, but that and a few slow spots were the only major flaws I found.
Right about now you’re probably wondering why I read this book when it says right in my Policy that I don’t read religious titles as a rule. And here’s the reason - Ebershoff manages to write about religion and characters who are extremely devout without shoving the religion’s values down your throat. The sermons included in The 19th Wife serve as background to the story, not as incentive to join the Latter-Day Saints. The 19th Wife is more about education than indoctrination, which suits me just fine.
The 19th Wife appeals to many audiences, and it should be equally fascinating to all of them. If you’re looking for a historical epic, this is your book. If you want a book with a little murder, mystery, and Mormons, this is your book.