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.

3 comments:

ROHIT said...

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Koe Whitton-Williams said...

C - this is a really well written review. (I see it's been awhile since you wrote it. . . )

I am going to get the book and read it. . .

angie said...

I will have to put this on my to read list. I'm so glad you stopped by yesterday b/c I've discovered so many great things in your blogs.