Monday, January 24, 2011

The 19th Wife: Perfect combination of historical fiction and a modern-day mystery

The 19th Wife: A NovelMy rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I truly enjoyed this novel, which combined the tales of two people who fled polygamy. As a historical fiction fan, I especially liked reading those parts of the book.

Ann Eliza Young became the "19th wife" of Brigham Young when she was a 24-year-old divorcee and he was 67. Instead of #19, she was probably #52 (polygamists don't keep very specific records of their wives). She left Young and become an "apostate," fleeing Utah to lecture against polygamy in the late 19th century. I had never heard of her before I began to read this book. She also published an autobiography, The 19th Wife, and faced scorn and hatred from the LDS church. Ebershoff rewrites Young's story by including sections of The 19th Wife (which he has rewritten--the original was long, overly wordy, and extremely biased) and also featuring excerpts from people's diaries and other accounts. Although based in reality, this is historical FICTION at its best. (Many LDS members have taken issue with Ebershoff recounting of Ann Eliza's story as well as the way he presented Brigham Young's egotism and cruelty.) Judging from her own words and the recount of her estranged son, Ann Eliza was not a saint, but she was a victim.

Interspersed with Ann Eliza Young's story is a murder mystery set in modern-day Utah. Jordan Scott, who was thrown out of his fundamentalist LDS sect years before, tries to get to the bottom of a mystery: his mom has been accused of murdering his dad. Jordan also happens to be gay. He leaves his home in California to return to Utah, where he hopes to get to the truth. Jordan has been deeply damaged by his childhood in a polygamist family and community.

I believe that modern-day Mormons are presented in an objective light in this book, even though many reviewers disagree with this. Young BYU history scholar Kelly Dee, whose ancestor is Ann Eliza Young, is attempting to research Ann Eliza's story. She volunteers at the Ann Eliza Young House, a refuge for children trying to escape from polygamist communities. Maureen works for Jordan's mother's lawyer, and she goes out of her way to help Jordan. Jordan and his new boyfriend, Tom, visit a church in Las Vegas that reaches out to gay Mormons.

Reading this book, I was struck by the strange juxtaposition of polygamy with the uptight views about sexuality in the LDS church. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other prominent LDS pioneers used polygamy to justify their lust and lasciviousness in the name of their faith. They were sexual predators of very young girls who were too young to get married. When they were questioned about polygamy or when women tried to challenge this practice, they were told that their faith was weak. As we all know, polygamy continues today in fundamentalist LDS sects. What was most interesting about this book was the overlaps between early Mormonism and fundamentalist Mormonism today.

At the same time, Mormons wear sacred underwear and Brigham Young taught that a woman must never reveal her sacred underwear to a man, even her husband. I believe this has changed since Brigham Young's time, but the foundations remain (pardon the pun!). I had a former Mormon coworker who told me that he has never seen his wife naked. Seriously. They had three children and had been married all their adult lives. Another oddity is that until 2005, a secret temple ceremony involved naked touching (annointing of the body) (if this ex-Mormon Web site is to be believed).

The weakest part of the book was the modern-day Jordan story. Some of it I enjoyed, but some of it could have been tightened up. Some of the characterization I found to be a bit stereotypical (the gay young man with the dog...and his friend back home who calls him honey), and other times I felt it just brushed the surface on the many modern-day characters. One thing Ebershoff clearly wanted to emphasize is the collateral damage that polygamy does to its children.

As I was reading this book around the time when we watched "Elizabeth" and I found myself frustrated with its many historical inaccuracies, I've concluded that I like intepretations of history...the filling in the blanks, so to speak...instead of rewriting history. I might be able to handle rewriting history if I know that's what it is. Ebershoff makes it very clear that he is filling in the blanks and his novel is based on history, but it's not historical fact...a point that many of his LDS critics seem to disregard.

Ebershoff ends his book with an explanation of what was true and what was imagined, in addition to his thoughts on history. He believes it is subjective and invites interpretation. You can read his interesting thoughts on history and fiction on his Web site, which also has more information on Ann Eliza Young (including a PDF of her original memoir) and some resources about polygamy, the LDS church, and gay Mormons.


  1. I have to say that not all the things you have mentioned above are not accurate. There are many different sects of Mormonism and being one of the LDS people I can tell you we do not practice polygamy at all. I can also say that the things you have heard about our temple ceremonies are false. People can not believe everything they see on the Internet or hear from another person unless that person is of that exact faith.

  2. It's clear that you did not read my review very carefully. I'm fully aware that only the fundamental LDS sects still practice polygamy. And regarding the temple ceremonies, because they are cloaked in secrecy, there's no way to know what is truth and what is fact.

  3. You seem like a really open minded person so may I just say that you posting sacred garments and saying, "hey these are their sacred garments" is actually really upsetting to the LDS? It's like, taking a picture of tribes people and posting, "These people believe if you take their picture you entrap their souls." (Real tribe, BTW...) You wouldn't think of taking their picture, or posting it, that would be offensive and insensitive. Please take it down. I know people can find it 'out there' elsewhere but...take it down any way. Please? I'm asking politely, woman to woman.

  4. Will do, Amelia, since you asked so nicely!

  5. Thank you so much. That's cool of you. And also, they don't look like that any more and frankly, they used to be hideous!!! They're more modern now. Like exercise gear almost.

  6. That's good to know! Makes sense.