The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

19th-wifeIt 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 a family’s polygamous history is revealed, including how a young woman became a plural wife.

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.

There are two 19th wives — one living in Brigham Young’s time and today — and Ebershoff tries to link the two stories together, but his attempt is poorly done and mixes history with fiction to the point that it’s very hard to discern what is history and what Ebershoff has made up himself. The author’s note at the end states very plainly that:

“This is a work of fiction.  It is not meant to be read as a stand-in for a biography of Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young, or any of the other historical figures who appear in it.  Even so, it’s human nature to wonder if a historical novel is inspired by real people and real events, and if so to what degree, and thus I feel an obligation to the reader to begin to answer that question. Anyone attempting to write about the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even a sliver of it, will immediately encounter the difficult task of accuracy.  That is because on nearly every issue in the Church’s past, and in regard to every person who has played a part in the Church’s often remarkable life, there are at least two, and typically more, combative opinions on what each side sincerely calls “the truth”…Is The 19th Wife based on real people and real events?  Yes.  Have I invented much of it?  Yes, for that is what novelists do.” (pg. 526)

However, The 19th Wife would have been a heck of a lot more interesting Ebershoff had concentrated on the first 19th wife, Ann Eliza Webb Young, rather than trying to link Ann Eliza’s story with BeckyLyn’s story because there honestly are no connections between the two women. Ann Eliza marries Brigham Young — by force according to Ebershoff’s interpretation – and realizes that polygamy is modern-day slavery. Fictional BeckyLyn Scott believes wholeheartedly in “the Principle” — going so far as to dump her then-fourteen-year-old son, Jordan, on the street — and wants to remain with her “sister-wives.”

“The good Saints know why I do not announce the number of wives. Wife is an inadequate term, for each woman plays a different role in my life, just as each person plays a different role in all our lives. For lock of a more precise term, we label them all wives, but they are not all wives. Indeed some are my mates and mothers of my children. Yet others are more like affectionate aunts. Others are intellectual friends, with whom I can debate and discuss all matters. Others sill are, indeed, the keepers of the house, the kitchen, the children. Others remind me, in their distance, of neighbors to whom one might wave across a wall. Others still are very old and retired in their rocking chairs. They find comfort in knowing I shall provide the with a bed and meals for the rest of their days.” (pg. 445)

Years later, Jordan, who is also gay, returns to Mesadale to help clear his mother’s name of the charge of murdering her son. But I didn’t find any of the modern portrayal to be interesting at all. It’s stilled and dragged the whole book down. On the other hand, the information about Ann Eliza was fascinating, and clearly were the bulk of Ebershoff’s research laid. And I did enjoy the beginning of his book, especially Jordan’s theories as to why so many people turn a blind eye to polygamy:

“Some people say the Mormons, who more or less own Utah, are embarrassed by the Firsts because of our connect past. They prefer us tucked away in the desert, where no one can see us. I guess they’re still touchy when it comes to polygamy. Others say the Mormons secretly want to return to polygamy one day, so they let it slide. I don’t know about that one. Another theory: some say it’s a case of religious freedom — you know, people have a right to believe what they want and the authorities need to be careful about trampling on that. Maybe. Then I’ve heard a really good one: it’s actually hard to prove polygamy in court. Think about it: it’s not illegal for a man and a bunch of women to live together. And is the state doesn’t recognize the marriages, how can they be breaking the law? I have my own theory about why all this has gone down in Mesadale for so long: no one cares. They don’t get a f*ck about a bunch of inbreeders fifty miles from the nearest cell tower. It’s funny, they call us the lost boys whn we get kicked out, but really, we were lost the day we were born. When I loved out there I often wondered if anyone other than my mom knew I was alive.” (pg. 39)

However, overall, The 19th Wife leaves little to be desired. I’d recommend reading Ann Eliza’s own autobiography,  checking out a biography on Ann Eliza, Brigham, and the history of Mormon polygamy, and watching an episode or two of “Big Love” rather than reading The 19th Wife. Or, at least, skip that parts about Jordan and BeckyLyn.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Ebershoff, David. The 19th Wife. New York: Random House, 2008. Print. 514 pgs. ISBN: 9781400063970. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Random House. Retrieved: March 18, 2009.
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2 thoughts on “The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

  1. I liked this one. I did like the sections on the first 19th wife better, but I like how the story in the present-day gave me a break from the historical stuff. Sorry this one was a bit disappointing to you.

    –Anna

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