The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff sounded too scandalous to avoid. It promised to combine plotlines, one focusing on the Mormon prophet Brigham Young, and another about Mormon polygamy in modern times. Plus, it was at Costco. And I can’t help myself when it comes to Costco bestsellers.
I loved the concept of this book. It takes historical fiction and modern fiction and combines them. In addition, it combines real historical documents into the mix, a way to lend authenticity to the stories.
However, even though both story lines were very engaging, they had some serious draw backs. The main one, for me, was that you could never tell what was fact and what was fiction. Sure, there are the historical documents in there, but you never know if they are really 100% true or have been fabricated a bit. And I’m more comfortable with my non-fiction staying clearly separate from my fiction, not all this confused, unlabeled intermixing.
Story line #1 is about the life of Brigham Young’s 19th wife, a true historical figure named Ann Eliza. Eliza is famous for her crusade to end polygamy in the US, after she divorced Young and toured the country giving public lectures about her marriage and scary details about Mormon polygamy in general.
Story line #2 is a modern who-done-it, staged at a fictitious modern day fundamentalist Mormon compound that still practices polygamy. The main character, Jordan Scott, a twenty something, homosexual, former compound member, sets out to solve the mystery of his father’s murder. Jordan’s mother has been convicted of the murder, and Jordan revisits his former world at the compound to help her get off the hook.
The book has a few very overt agendas/messages. The first is an open challenge to the modern Mormon Church regarding their non-acceptance of homosexuals. Jordan finds love and acceptance with his boyfriend in an apostate Mormon church that embraces gays and lesbians. The author’s other beef is the Mormons’ covering up of their polygamist roots. Ebershoff details Joseph Smith’s revelation about polygamy and shows how he and Brigham openly practiced and encouraged it as an essential means to salvation.
To be honest, the book lagged a bit. There were long stretches, especially in the format of an academic term paper, that got really boring. My favorite parts were about Ann Eliza and her story, which taken alone, would have made for a much better book.
Ebershoff makes a good case for why someone like Ann Eliza would become entrapped in polygamy in the first place, and a lot of it has to do with the manipulating and corrupting power of “religion.” I gained a greater understanding of how people who are raised and entrenched in an extreme religious culture can accept repulsive and dehumanizing behaviors. This not only lends insight into the modern polygamist Mormon sects, but it also can explain some of the behaviors of extremist Islamic fanatics.
When the object of your devotion is a religion, you become victim to religion. But when you follow Jesus, you’re not following religion, you’re following a person (who happens to be God), one who is good, one who is righteous, and one who won’t victimize you or lead you into dehumanizing acts.