Saturday, September 13, 2008

Book Review - the Nineteenth Wife by David Ebershoff

When I heard about The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, I was immediately desperate to get my hands on a copy.  I love historical fiction and have a strange fascination with polygamy and other cults.  As soon as it arrived, I sat down to read it cover to cover.   It did not disappoint.

This novel weaves the stories of two women, both the 19th wives of polygamists, and paints a thorough and captivating portrait of plural marriage from its inception in the 1830s to its current existence with fringe groups.  The first 19th wife is Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young's wife who divorced him and campaigned tirelessly on the lecture circuit to educate America about polygamy.  She was instrumental in convincing Congress to outlaw the practice and forcing the Mormons to renounce it.  Ebershoff fictionalizes her story but also references diverse original sources to bring to life Brigham Young, Ann Eliza Young, her parents and siblings.  The details about life on the frontier as well as the dialogue are authentic and intriguing. 

The other 19th wife's story is radically different from Ann Eliza Young's, and reveals how far from grace plural marriage has fallen.   It is really a murder mystery tale, told through the eyes of Jordan Scott, the wife's outcast gay son.  He is researching the Mesadale Firsts community (fictional but inspired on communities such as the one led by Warren Jeffs) to free his mother from being unjustly convicted of killing his father.  The contrast between the struggles of the Mormon pioneers with their hand-drawn cart journeys to Utah with the present-day Internet and IM technology used by the men of Mesadale to recruit new wives is striking.  Regardless of the advances of technology, however, the hardships of plural marriage to the wives and children remain unchanged.

Ebershoff condemns the practice thoroughly, but he does a great job of showing the fears and beliefs that drive women to choose being a plural wife.  The chapter when he describes Ann Eliza's parents' struggle with Joseph Smith's commandment to embrace polygamy is especially poignant.  It is her mother who tearfully ends up forcing her husband to take on a second wife, in fear of not being with him in heaven.  Once convinced, the husband fully embraced it, taking on multiple wives, and the ensuing strife destroyed their marriage.

Ann Eliza's character is a little murky, one of the hazards of using such a controversial historical figure.  It is hard to believe that she is much of a victim after three failed marriages under her belt in her life.  She is a good illustration of how high and low you could be in early Mormon culture as well as how much women were forced to rely on their own means to provide for themselves.  

The modern sections of the novel do the best job of showing the true victims of "celestial marriage": the children.  Jordan's descriptions of their home life really illustrates their plight: "We slept in triple-decker bunks; or five to a bed, head to foot; or on the couch, four boys elbowing over three cushions; or on the living room floor, on blankets and pillows, twenty kids laid down like tiles.  Shirts and sweaters in plastic garbage bins labelled by size.  Shoes handed down.  Tennis balls and kickballs handed down from one kid to the next.  The only thing in that house that was all my own, that I never had to share with anyone, was a drawer in my dresser, twelve inches wide by fifteen inches deep...  If you're bad at math, that's 1.25 square feet, which was really more than I needed because I didn't have anything to keep inside."

The novel ends on a mixed note.  The 1800s story concludes with the Latter Day Saints renouncing polygamy.  The current day story concludes with Jordan's mother being freed after another killer confesses, but she elects to return to the compound.  Her fear of hell is stronger than a desire to escape a harsh life as a cast-off widow.  The Nineteenth Wife is a thought-provoking expose of polygamy's evolution in America and its presence today.  It's particularly relevant considering all the recent news coverage, but it's also a wonderfully written and captivating novel.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


Tonight's Sunday Scribblings prompt is Miracle. It inspired this little fiction tale...

It was going to take a miracle. Nothing short of a miracle would solve the unholy mess that she was in. Jane stared at the screen of her cellphone, wishing desperately that the words picture sent would magically disappear, but she knew that even if she pressed clear and made them disappear, it still wouldn't undo her mistake. Why did Verizon make it so easy to hit send?

She and Brandi had just been messing around, killing time during yet another boring Saturday afternoon in Wichita. They were both broke, having already burned through their monthly allowance: Jane on a killer studded jeans skirt and Brandi on a hot tattoo of cool looking Asian symbols.

They'd decided to go to the mall anyway, it was either that or hanging out in the parking lot at the Circle K. The busy mall was marginally less depressing, even when they couldn't do anything other than window shop. Brandi sometimes stole little things from stores, but Jane never got off on that like Brandi. The last time she'd stole a lip gloss from Rite Aid, she'd felt so guilty about it that she'd actually gone back the next day to put it back. The clerk had stared at her the whole time and she'd almost gotten caught, proof of what a total loser she was, probably the only idiot in the world to get caught returning stolen loot.

They'd ended up in Victoria's Secret, laughing at the skanky lace lingerie displayed in the candy pink store. A snooty saleslady, trying to scare them off, had asked them if they needed any help. Jane had bit her tongue hard to keep from laughing out loud when Brandi had looked her straight in the eyes and asked for her help to pick out something special for the two of them for their wedding night. That snooty lady looked so disgusted but the potential of a commission was too sweet to give in to her homophobic fears.

Jane wasn't too homophobic herself, but she definitely wasn't a lesbian, still she enjoyed a good prank so she went along with Brandi's joke. Next thing she knew, they were naked in a dressing room, putting on matching pink see-through camisoles and posing for the camera. They were laughing so hard that tears were streaming down their faces. It was amazing that they'd been able to even take the picture, but they unfortunately had. Then they took a whole bunch more, pretending to be lesbian lovers. They sat on the floor, among all the discarded outfits, with the frigid and annoyed saleslady right outside the door and reviewed their photoshoot. It was during their next laugh attack that she had hit clicked "yes" to the send to all command.

Now she was going to have a lot of explaining to do at Thanksgiving sitting around the table with her grandmother and her aunts. She would never be able to look her cousins in the face again after they saw that picture. She prayed that no one would be cruel enough to put it out on the Internet or she might actually have to become a lesbian because no guy would ever date her again.