Monday, February 6, 2012

The 19th Wife

I bought The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff at one of those stupid tempting 3 for 2 tables at Barnes and Noble at some point. As I'm reading through my TBR stacks, I'm realizing why it's good that I've stopped buying so much fiction like that and using the library more. Many of those books have been good, but rarely have they really been something I'd re-read and really want to own.

The 19th Wife started out very, very slow. I also made the mistake of not re-reading the back cover and being reminded that this isn't just a story about the woman known as Brigham Young's 19th wife. In my head, this was purely a historical novel. However, I quickly realized it's only partly a historical novel - it also tells the modern story of a gay former prostitute who was kicked out of the Firsts, a sect of the Church of the Latter-day Saints, and his mother who is being held in jail for killing his father. It took me a few chapters to adjust to the change in narration!

I picked this book up because I've read a few memoirs of girls who were part of the LDS sect run by Warren Jeffs, the one that's been in the news the last few years for polygamous marriage, child abuse/neglect, rape,  and underage marriage. That's all here in The 19th Wife as well. This culture fascinates me. How does something get so twisted? Why do the women go along with this? How did it all start? Those answers come much more strongly in the historical portion of the novel.

Ebershoff clearly put a lot of effort into his research. The historical parts actually made me question whether they were actually fiction or excerpts from real documents. Apparently they are fictionalized accounts based on real documents, such as Eliza Ann Young's (the 19th wife) memoirs. They seemed real to me and really brought those characters to life. He shows how Joseph Smith and Brigham Young introduced polygamy into their religion and how they slowly made it the norm and convinced people that it was the only way to salvation. While I still don't get how people could go along with it, I do have a better understanding of their motivations. They truly believed that their salvation was based on what the Prophet said, and the thought of not going to Heaven convinced them to go along with things they wouldn't normally do. Later on, it became such an ingrained part of culture that the people just didn't know any better. (Although the amount of people who runaway tells me that most people still know right from wrong deep down.)

While I enjoyed the mystery portion of the modern storyline, I just felt like it was a little over the top. And I just didn't care for any of the characters in this section. A lot of the action was unbelievable, from Tom falling for Jordan practically at first sight to Jordan's conversations with his mother to the runaway kid they help to the trouble they get into trying to solve the murder. I liked that he shared how the kids who do runaway - or are kicked out - of the Firsts often had to turn to prostitution to survive. He also detailed how the boys are often kicked out because they are competition for the older men who want pretty young wives. And he details how polygamy dehumanizes the men as well as the women.

Once I got into it, the book picked up and I read the second half quickly and did end up enjoying it. There was just something that kept me from loving it, and I don't think I'd ever re-read it. I do think if you're interested in in understanding how the polygamous sects of the LDS started and continue on today, I do think it's a worthwhile read, and it did make more want to read more non-fiction about the founding of the Mormon church.


  1. Good review! Thanks for posting. I've wanted to read this book. I too am fascinated by this culture. I read Under the Banner of Hraven and was amazed and appalled!

  2. I have this on my shelf, loaned by a friend. I need to get around to actually reading it.

    If you're interested in the LDS Church, a good basic explanation of the theology is "The Mormon Faith," by Robert Millet. "The Mormon Experience" is a solid (and long) history, but it was published in 1979. Most of it is about the 19th century, IIRC. It's by Arrington and Bitton. Both books are about the mainstream LDS Church, not the splinter polygamous groups that broke off in the 20th century. The mainstream LDS Church gave up polygamy about 100 years ago, and will excommunicate members who practice polygamy.

    There are lots of really interesting books about Mormon women in history and what they said about polygamy. You could get some through ILL, I suppose, if you were super-interested. You might like to take a look sometime at the Women's Exponent, but of course it's not easy to sift through. Wiki explanation: The online archive (the wiki link is out of date):

    1. Thanks for the suggestions Jean! I feel like I've mainly read about the splinter groups - they're the sensationalist part, so they get the attention.