Part historical novel and part contemporary murder mystery, David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife takes a rather unique and extensive look into the start and ultimate decline of polygamy in Mormonism in the United States. There are two major story lines alternating throughout the book. One of Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young’s 19th wife who fought ardently to abolish polygamy from the religion. The second story is of Jordon Scott and his mother, the 19th wife of a Saint in the “Firsts” sect of Mormonism in Mesdale Utah. Jordon is reunited with his mother after a 6 year separation when his mother is accused of having killed her husband. I first read about this book from a review by Jen over at Devour of Books, and I was lucky enough to finally find a copy at my local library. It seems more libraries in the Bay Area had the audio cd in transit, than the actual book on the shelves.
What is unique about this story is the way it is presented. Ebershoff used a variety of formats to tell the fictionalized story of some very real characters. Ebershoff uses diary entries, correspondence, newspaper articles, all sorts of mixed media to tell the story of polygamy’s rise in Mormonism through the eyes of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, as well as Ann Eliza and her parents. The modern storyline is told through the eyes of Jordon Scott only. The majority of the novel centers around Ann Eliza and her perception of polygamy from early childhood well into her adulthood. Ann Eliza’s story, as well as that of her parent’s are key in understanding modern Mormonism, and in turn, understanding Jordon’s story.
The novel is beautifully written and at over 500 pages, I was almost sad to finish the book. Like Devourer, I was also a little disappointed with the finale of the murder trial for Jordon’s mother, but the rest of the novel was gripping. The publication date is also pretty well timed given all the recent news about the polygamous sect in Texas and its leader Warren Jeffs. Ebershoff said on LibraryThing’s Author Chat group that his book has received a pretty fair acceptance by the Mormons. I found that Ebershoff tried to be fair and unbiased in his retelling of a very controversial part of religious history. I think having up to five narrators tell the same tale was beneficial in providing a variety of points of view from which the reader can draw their own conclusions and decisions about this topic. I was also surprised to find an author’s note at the end of the book detailing what is fiction and what is fact in this historical novel. I have only come across one other historical fiction novel that made sure the reader knew that the author took liberties with the characters and the setting. This is a fantastic read, and I hope you all can find a place for it on your never-ending To-Be-Read lists.
FINAL GRADE: AThe 19th Wife by David Ebershoff Random House, 2008 ISBN 1400063970 514 pages