Book Review: The 19th Wife

the19thwifeThe 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  In addition, it combines real historical documents into the mix, a way to lend authenticity to the stories.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  Sure, there are the historical documents in there, but you never know if they are really 100% true or have been fabricated a bit.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.


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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Fabulous review. I keep thinking that it’s a book too good to pass up and yet I have passed it up time and time again. I have great curiosity about it but I’m not quite convinced I should read it. Yours is the first thoughtful review of the book and I couldn’t agree with your summary statement anymore if I tried!


    AL: I appreciate the feedback! Hopefully you can now make a good decision about whether to read it or not. I can say that while it’s a fairly long book, I did find some value in reading it. But others might think of it as a waste of time. Now, I don’t know if there’s one, but a stand alone biography on Eliza would probably be great. She’s VERY interesting.

  2. So weird! I just started this book this morning!! What are the odds? Now I’m wondering if I should continue or if it will be a waste of time. Hmmm.

    AL: That’s funny. I’m guessing we tend to reach for the same kinds of books! I’m not sure I can offer you more assistance in making up your mind. But I can give you a couple different reading options for it. I personally preferred the story about Eliza, which is possible to be read by itself. It’s pretty obvious when you hit the modern story. But to read the Eliza part, you also get all the historical documents with it, which, depending on your tastes, can be a bit boring. It’s also possible to read the modern one alone, if that sounds more interesting, but despite what several reviewers have said, it was a pretty uninteresting story for me. Less about the Mormons in the sect and more about what happens to the kids get kicked out of them. And a lot about homosexuals who are kicked out of the Mormon church. The Eliza story talks about the very start of Mormonism and the travels until they got to Salt Lake City, very interesting history, if you ask me. Anyway, good luck deciding how much to dive into it (or not). If you decide to read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  3. Great review. You just saved me hours of reading. 🙂 I have stacks of books near my bedside I need to finish, so I can live vicariously through you as you actually finish a book. I think I forgot what that feels like. I am one of those who would like Eliza part better, I love factual, accurate historical fiction. Thanks for the insight.

    AL: Hi Mindy! Good to hear from you. I don’t blame you for having little time to read…you’ve got your hands full with your kiddos! With such limited reading time, I don’t think I’d go for this book as one of my top choices. So many books out there that are much better and worth the time!

  4. If I may be so bold as to recommend another book on the topic, full text available on google books: Tell It All. Written in 1874 by an Englishwoman, Fanny Stenhouse, who had a very strong faith in Jesus Christ and who was converted to Mormonism, eventually winding up in Salt Lake City. I couldn’t stop reading her biography…her witness and strong faith was stirring and the depth of her despair as Brigham Young repeatedly betrayed the Mormon people was heartbreaking. Stenhouse was married to the editor of SLC newspaper, and her discourse was widely received in America.

    Living in LDS central…I have to say there are many good things about the LDS faith that the Christian world could learn from, so my dismay at Stenhouse’s reports is even deepened knowing how many excellent people with “servant’s hearts” are so deceived by false doctorine.

    AL: Thanks for the recommendation. I have it on my iTouch now to read. It would be interesting to read an account of how a Christian can be converted into a Mormon.

  5. PS: Now that Sense and Sensibilities and Sea Monsters is out, aren’t you getting behind on pop culture book reviews? I’ve been waiting to hear what you had to say about the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!

    AL: I admit, I purchased S&S&Sea Monsters before getting my copy of P&P&Zombies. I’ve been on the library wait list forever! I might just end up buying Zombies. But we’re reading S&S in my book club, and watching the amazing new BBC adaptation. So it made sense to dive into the Sea Monsters discussion at the same time. I’ll be getting to that one soon, I promise!

  6. I’ve had nightmares about the topic of this book. I think it would disturb me too much to dive into this book, much like the polygamy portions of The Red Tent. And I wish someone had warned me about that book… I regretfully read that while I was pregnant. Anyway, thanks for this book review!

    AL: It is a disturbing topic, and you know, I’m a little weirded out that I’m not as disturbed by it as I should be. The Red Tent did get a bigger reaction out of me, even though I still like that book over all. Maybe that book helped me handle this one better. And that HBO show, Big Love, which I admit, I’ve seen a few episodes. Seems like polygamy is a popular topic these days!

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