Saturday, October 10, 2009

Book Review: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Murder? Check. Famous historical characters? Check. Unbiased examination of religious church-and-state themes? Check. Ripped-from-the-headlines polygamous cult? Check. Good writing and sympathetic characters? Check and check.

The 19th Wife was hard to put down. I'm usually not a fan of books that don't stick to one narrative but Ebershoff deftly weaves together two stories: a modern-day murder on a polygamous ranch in Utah and a historical narrative based on the real-life story of Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young's wives who in 1875 attempted to divorce him and began the crusade to end polygamy in the United States.

*Full disclosure: I received an ARC of this book free through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program. This does not mean I have to give it a good review, but I'm going to because it was a good book

The historical part uses tons of different sources to tell the story: Ann Eliza's first-person narrative (based on a book she actually wrote called Wife No. 19), fictional correspondence between a BYU grad student and current-day Mormon church leaders, historical accounts from Ann Eliza's family members and contemporaries, fictional newspaper articles and a Wikipedia entry, to name a few. I've read that many people preferred the historical narrative to the modern-day murder mystery, but I liked them both.

I loved the protagonist of the modern parts, a young gay man named Jordan, who was kicked out of a fundamentalist polygamist compound (the "First Latter-Day Saints," which appear similar to the fundamental and polygamist LDS sect that was in the news a year ago or so) when he was young for holding hands with his stepsister. Jordan's mother, herself a 19th wife, is arrested for the murder of Jordan's father. Jordan, reluctantly at first, determines to clear her name. His voice is compelling, and you can't help rooting for him and those he meets on his crusade to exonerate his mom. The parts that take place on the Firsts' middle-of-nowhere town are downright creepy. Ebershoff does clearly state early in the book that the funamental polygamists are not related to today's Mormons except through distant history, and that the LDS church today does not condone polygamy. Kinda sad people still have to make this distinction, but anyway.

The historical parts are a fascinating depiction of the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, focusing specifically on the origins of polygamy and how Joseph Smith and his successor, Brigham Young, forced their followers to practice it, telling them it was the only way to heaven. I'm not Mormon, so I don't know exactly how much of the historical part is pure fact and how much is narrative license. Regardless, it's just flat-out fascinating. Polygamy was a disgusting, soul-crushing practice and I caught myself shaking my head and saying "oh no he didn't" a bunch of times. The gradual corruption it wreaked on the early LDS families makes for compelling stuff.

I could go on and on about the book, but suffice to say if you like historical narratives based on actual events, you'll like this book. Also if you're fascinated by modern-day polygamists (and who wasn't, after the raid on that ranch a year or two ago?) this is a good introduction to that way of life. My only complaints are the book is a bit on the long side (the ARC is almost 600 pages) and I was constantly wondering during the historical parts what was truth and what was fiction. Maybe that's just the journalist in me. But you can read more about Ebershoff's research methods on his Web site or in the Author's Note at the back of the book.

Overall, yes! This was a good read.


shannon said...

I'm reading this right now! A coworker friend of mine recommended and loaned it to me. I'm really enjoying it.

Irene Latham said...

AC, so happy to read your review, as this one has been in the back of my mind. Now it's in the front! Thanks.

Lenore said...

I really enjoyed this one too! I've passed it on to several people now who rave about it too.

The Rejection Queen said...

I'm reading this right now too. I'm on page 223 and loving it! I'm the part where the son started the fire by the post office.