I’ve been putting off my review of The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff while I gather my thoughts on it. Here’s what the publisher had to say:
It 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.
While a number of the characters were fictional, part of this book is historically based. The story is split between 19th century Utah, with the beginnings of the Latter Day Saints and their progress into polygamy; and a modern story of a “lost boy” from the Latter Day Saints who returns when his mother is arrested for shooting his father.
It took me a while to follow the story completely, but that actually kept it interesting (not confusing) and it really compelled me to keep reading, trying to sort all the stories and characters out in my mind. A great deal of the story dealt with the history of the Latter Day Saints and a character called Ann Eliza Young (the 19th wife) who was one of the first converts but later came to fight against polygamy. The story jumps from primary sources of essays, journals, and letters to narrative of both past and present-day characters. The story slowly unravels over the duration of Ann Eliza Young’s life and speculation thereafter. This includes the Latter Day Saints history, the break-off of the Firsts (those who still practise polygamy), and another modern character who is studying Ann Eliza Young and this period in history.
The other modern story is about Jordan, a “lost boy” who was cast out of Mesadale (the city of the First Latter Day Saints). He is now living in California and openly gay. He returns to Mesadale when he hears that his mom (also a 19th wife) has shot his dad, who is an open polygamist. Jordan starts by just visiting his estranged mother, but ends up trying to unravel the tale of her strong faith in the Firsts as well as who actually murdered his father. We later find out how this part of the story fits into the book besides just being about polygamy/Mesadale/the Firsts.
It seems like polygamy is a hot topic right now in the book world. There is a community here in BC called Bountiful that a couple books have delved into. Its quite interesting how much people are fascinated by the concept of polygamy. David Ebershoff writes about how the country is entranced when Ann Eliza Young is doing the lecture circuit though the USA to raise awareness about polygamy because they can’t believe that people would be that ‘brainwashed’.
David Ebershoff did a really good job of keeping all the characters straight! Not too many characters become “main characters” that the point of view gets confusing. The writing kept me hooked; the story and the layout of the tale kept me reading; and the characters were all very relate-able and compelling, even if I don’t agree with their religious views.
Full disclosure: I received a copy of the book from the publisher for review purposes. This situation did not affect my review in any way, shape or form.