Monday, February 7, 2011

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Polygamy has long been a controversial and complex issue.  With the emergence of shows, such as Big Love and Sister Wives, and the recent arrest of Warren Jeffs of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the interest in polygamy and the psychology behind it has grown.  Fundamentalist groups, such as Jeffs’, have broken away from the Church of the Latter Day Saints, claiming that only in having multiple wives will a man and woman enter into Heaven. 

Having little knowledge of the history behind the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and being more than a little fascinated by the idea of multiple wives, I happily picked this book up at a charming bookstore in Ottumwa, Iowa, while visiting family for Thanksgiving.  In addition to my interest in learning more, the fiction-lover in me was drawn to the mystery of a murder within one of these secretive, religious compounds.

This thought-provoking novel simultaneously tells two tales, both involving polygamy.   One is of a woman, Ann Eliza, proclaimed to be Prophet Brigham Young’s 19th wife (although her true number was never officially determined), before she separated from him in 1875 and launched a nationwide campaign against him and the polygamy reportedly practiced at that time by the Church of the Latter Day Saints.  This portion of the story delves into the history of the religion, beginning with Ann Eliza’s mother, Elizabeth, meeting the original prophet Joseph Smith, through their journey with him and then Brigham Young to Utah - away from religious persecution - to the building of the great Salt Lake City.  It traces the roots of the religion, emphasizes its foundation of unconditional love, but mostly focuses on the doctrine of polygamy established by Joseph Smith and its effect on the men, women, children, and the religion itself.

The other story is set in the present day and follows a young man’s investigation into his mother’s arrest for the murder of his father.  She, too, is a 19th wife from a fundamentalist group called the Firsts, who have separated from the Mormons.  Jordan Scott is an outcast from the fundamentalist sect he was born into, like most other boys his age who offer too much competition to the older men.  Early in his teens, he is driven into the middle of nowhere in Utah and left.  Through strength of will and perseverance, he survives to build his own life in California, only to return in an effort to save the mother who helped cast him off.

Mixing intriguing historical research with fiction, Ebershoff allows the reader to better understand the complexity within the Mormon religion, or more accurately, the emergence of polygamy as an initial doctrine of the religion and its effects, both in the past and present.

This book was thoroughly researched and through both original writings from the historical figures themselves, as well as those fictional but inspired by them, the author does a wonderful job of depicting multiple views and truths from the past.  Through the character’s narratives, it becomes clear that there is no solid truth and that each person viewed polygamy from a different light.  Each character, whether historical or completely fictional – such as Jordan - is flawed, whether by lust, ambition, vanity, or simply the desire for acceptance.   No human is perfect.  This may be one of Ebershoff’s lessons.  Ironically, while Jordan’s character is the complete opposite of what is valued in his religion – by definition, he is the most imperfect - he is the one character who seems to have the most integrity. 

This novel is difficult to get into at first as it switches quickly between past and present and at times I found the historical accounts to be lengthy, but it is well worth the effort.  It is a book that teaches more than just history; it teaches us about human nature.  While the idea of polygamy seems completely illogical and harmful, Ebershoff shows us how to some it could have legitimacy.  Also, Jordan’s quest to rescue a mother who values her religion above him is compelling and heart-breaking.  Everyone wants to belong.  Everyone wants to be loved.  It’s just amazing the lengths some will go to fill this emptiness.  And what kinds of lies do we tell ourselves in order to be “happy,” in order to “belong?”

Portrait of Ann Eliza:


1 comment:

France said...

This book keeps you interested by weaving a present day crime story with a little history. You have characters to feel sympathy for and a real jerk for a bad guy, in both the old and new tale being told. It is an easy read yet you get a nice oversight of how the Mormon Church was started and where it is today. I had no idea who Brigham Young was except for the university named after him and I have to say it was quite an eye opener!