Friday, May 20, 2011

The 19th Wife

The 19th Wife
by David Ebershoff

This work of historical fiction had my attention from the very start. The author cleverly wrote two books in one, telling the story of Brigham Young's 19th wife, Ann Eliza and relating a current day polygamist tale of murder in Southern Utah. Switching effortlessly between stories Ebershoff held my attention in both the past and present day stories.

I applaud the research done by Ebershoff in preparation of writing this book. Indeed, I was surprised to learn that he resides in New York and not in Utah among the people and landscape of which he writes.

Having lived in Utah for three years and longing to move back there, I was personally entertained by the details which corresponded to my life in Utah. Young Ann Eliza's mother lived in Cottonwood. I so clearly remember looking at an incredible home in Cottonwood while house hunting. It was an average neighborhood and even an average house, but the owner was a concrete contractor and had one amazing things inside the house with concrete. Six years later I still recall that house with a bit of awe.

Mention of the local papers in Brigham Young's day referred to the Tribune and the Deseret. I made the assumption that the reference was historical fact which took me by surprise as those two newspapers exist still today. They are delivered in different colored plastic sleeves. You can tell walking through your neighborhood which homes subscribe to the Trib and which to the Deseret, which of course is the "Mormon" paper, just by the color of the wrapper. Such little, seemingly insignificant details such as these, which reminded me of my time lived in Utah, brought me such delight!

David Ebershoff weaves the story of polygamy and the Mormon faith through the eyes of Ann Eliza, 19th wife of Brigham Young, starting with Ann Eliza's parents prior to the Mormon move to Utah. Historically based, the story is a fascinating look at the trials and tribulations of the Mormons under the leadership of their Prophet, Joseph Smith, until his death and then Brigham Young. The story tells of the dangers the Mormons faced because of their faith, their seclusion from the Gentile world, and the decree by Joseph Smith that God's command was to practice polygamy to be assured a place in heaven. Although Ann Eliza grew up in the faith, her awareness of her parents' relationship and the effect polygamy had on it troubled her. She did not view the taking of multiple wives a practice that pleased God, but rather a religious endorsement of adultery. Indeed, the way the story is told, it's difficult to see it as anything other than "legalized" adultery. After her separation and eventual divorce from Brigham Young, Ann Eliza went on lecture tours and wrote her own book, The 19th Wife, in opposition to the practice of polygamy. This is historical fact.

At the same time we are learning of the early Mormon life another story unfolds through the eyes and voice of Jordan Scott, a young man who has been thrown out of a present day polygamist colony. Ebershoff calls these people First Latter Day Saints as they believe they carry on the true beliefs of the Latter Day Saints and were opposed to the church's denouncement of polygamy in 1890. They do exist today and call themselves Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and continue to practice polygamy.

It's not uncommon for young men to be excommunicated from an FLDS community on relatively slight "wrong doings." The reason for this is to ensure there are plenty of wives for the older men of the community. Jordan's leader/prophet banished him from their community and his mother simply drove him out of the community and left him on the side of the road in the desert. Eventually his father is murdered and she is accused of the crime. He returns to Utah from California to see his mother and becomes involved in the solving of his father's murder. Through this fictional story which is told through the book along with Ann Eliza's story, the reader learns some of the truth of polygamy in today's world.

And like any good novel, the end of the story is a bit of a surprise, or at least was for me. I'll not give it away.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but would caution the reader that it is historical fiction. Mr. Ebershoff shares his resources in the end of the book and I was delighted to find them. One book, Under the Banner of Heaven, is one that I have longed to read and is on his list. Initially, I thought I'd read it next, but have started another book instead. I most likely will look into some of the other books his research came from.

This book receives five of five shots from me.

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