Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

Ebershoff has crafted a very interesting novel, combining the stories of Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young's 19th wife, who became a crusader to end polygamy, and Jordan Scott, a modern-day "lost boy" from a polygamist cult. Young's story is told through fictionalized historical documents, including her memoir (she actually wrote a memoir that sold widely in the late 1800s, but Ebershoff has re-created the document to meet his purposes), letters from one of her sons to a researcher, excerpts from Brigham's diaries, newspaper articles, LDS church documents, and a modern-day senior thesis by a budding feminist LDS scholar. While almost all of these documents were written by Ebershoff, they give readers a sense of constructing the story themselves as they sift through the documents. And Ebershoff does a good job of giving the supposed creators of the documents individual voices.

The contemporary story--which involves Jordan in trying to solve the mystery of his father's murder, for which his mother (also a 19th wife) has been arrested--is told in a more traditional first-person narrative. The mystery is wrapped up a bit too conveniently, but Jordan and the friends he makes in the process of exonerating his mother are endearing. For a considerable number of pages, the parallel stories seem only to be connected by the common subject--polygamy and the 19th wife--but another more direct link appears later. The way that link plays into the ending of the book actually caused me to rethink how I read the earlier sections, which was an enjoyable twist.

The book is much more than the two stories, however; it is also a look at the history of the Mormons, the practice of polygamy, and whether the modern-day church bears any responsibility for the treatment of women and children in the polygamist cults that have been much in the news in the past few years. While many events in the story as told by Ebershoff cast a negative light on the early LDS church, the author also shows respect for the power of faith.

While I didn't love this book, I found it very interesting and I am really looking forward to discussing it Monday night when Novel Conversations meets. I think it's an excellent book group selection--much to discuss about the writing, the construction of the text, and the ideas Ebershoff presents.

Favorite passage:
To me, this younger Brigham looks a lot like Russell Crowe.

(This is a footnote in the women's studies senior thesis written by character Kelly Dee--and it cracked me up. Though I'm not sure a young scholar would include such a footnote in her paper, she definitely would have had the thought. And to give her more respect, below is her [and Ebershoff's, we presume] take on the church's responsibility for modern-day polygamists.)

At some point, I saw the connection between Ann Eliza Young, nineteenth-century Mormon polygamy, and the polygamists of today. Polygamists like the Firsts in Mesadale are not Mormons; we are not of the same Church. This is not in dispute. Yet they are the unintended consequences of Joseph and Brigham's polygamous policies. To deny this is to deny the cold facts of history. To ignore their stories is to abandon Christian principles. And so I could not look away.

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