5.17.2009

Book Review: The 19th Wife

The !9th Wife by David Ebershoff

Here's my column from Crucial Pop this week about The 19th Wife...

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When choosing a book for a library book discussion, one always has to find a book that will provoke, well, discussion, in addition to raising questions and answers, and springing forth some sort of emotional response from the reader, making for a lively and often heated discussion.

Recently, my library chose The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, and I think we’re in for one wild ride of a discussion.

This is actually a novel of two parallel stories – the first being the story of Ann Eliza Young, who was the 19th wife of prominent Mormon leader Brigham Young. In reality, Ann Eliza was probably more like the 52nd of 56th wife, though records from that time are sketchy. Ann Eliza created a sensation in 1875 when she left Brigham Young and extricated herself from her marriage, then toured the country talking about polygamy in the wilds of Utah – isolated areas that still harbor polygamist sects today. She even wrote a story of her experiences, entitled Wife No. 19.

Along with that story is the modern-day story of Jordan Scott, who grew up in polygamist society Mesadale, then was forced to leave the sect as a teenager. He returns to his roots to investigate the murder of his father by his 19th wife – who happens to be Jordan’s mother. Jordan’s story is filled with fantastic secondary characters, and he himself is an unlikely narrator for polygamy, a notoriously straight-laced lifestyle.

Ebershoff beautifully weaves these two stories together, told in alternating voices but showing clear parallels between the two women caught in a marriage with not only a husband, but many wives. Not only are they engaging stories in their own right, but Ebershoff sheds so much light on the beginning of the Mormon movement, and shows the struggles that the follows of Joseph Smith endured in following their prophet across the wilds of America in the 1800s. Filled with rich historic detail and engaging and lyrical prose, one can’t help but be pulled back in time to the age of Smith and Young, as well as illuminating the continuing struggles today.

Both stories are so engaging, the reader hates to switch to the “other” story, but then gets pulled back into that one as well, again hating to switch back again – the sign of a great storytelling vibe.

Initially, I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy this book, but I ended up devouring it in hours – and then found myself surfing the internet for more information, more background, pictures, anything. Any novel that makes me want to know more is a great one – librarians always thirst to “know more”.

And based on all of that, I think the discussion is going to be a lively one – should polygamy be accepted in our age of religious freedom? What sort of characters are Jordan and Ann Eliza, and how are they similar? Did you have any idea how big Mormonism is in America, both in the 1800s and today? Did you like this novel? Which storyline was your favorite?

I can’t wait to ask these questions, and to see what answers percolate through our discussion. Stay tuned…

If you enjoyed The 19th Wife and want to read more Mormon polygamist memoirs (which have exploded in the publishing world in the last few years), check out Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, When Men Become Gods by Stephen Singular, Escape by Carolyn Jessop, Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall or Shattered Dreams by Irene Spencer.

David Ebershoff and more about this novel can be found on his website at: http://www.ebershoff.com/.

2 comments:

Miss Lissa said...

I read this book last year and thought it was great. However, my favorite of the recent spate of Mormon-themed books is definitely Under the Banner of Heaven - what a wonderful, well-researched, and *I thought* respectful account of Mormonism.

Marissa said...

I thought "Under the Banner of Heaven" was a great read as well...we discussed it in book discussion several years ago, and there wasn't one quiet moment that whole discussion!