Well, it is a week before finals, and I have pharm to learn and dishes to wash. But instead I’m going to pound out a book review. My stats have been dismal at best as of late, and only I am to blame with my lack of reading and new reviews. Thanks to those who haven’t abandoned browsing my site, even though the reviews are so few and far between.
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff puts two stories of polygamy side by side, one modern and one from its inception, to show the reader the impact it has had on its women, children, and on history itself. This beefy book follows Brigham Young’s 19th wife, Ann Eliza, and her expulsion from the Mormon church due to her strong convictions against polygamy. We witness her as a child, as she sees the toll her father’s multiple marriages takes on her mother. And later we see her forced into a plural marriage with the Prophet Young in order to save her brother’s reputation and family. Later she escapes, and takes on the political cause that ultimately results in law against plural marriages.
All the while we follow Jordan Scott, a young man banished from the Firsts, a fanatical offshoot of the Latter-Day Saints, who still practice polygamy. Jordan is supposedly banished for holding hands with his half-sister, but the true reason is that there cannot be too many young men in the community or the old men wont be able to marry as many beautiful girls. His attention is forced back into the world he has left behind him when his mother is accused and arrested for murdering his father. He returns to try and solve the murder mystery, and understand why his mother would love this life of oppression, subservience, and abuse.
I was enraptured by Ann Eliza’s story. I loved the passages describing the westward movement of the Mormons to Utah, the harshness of their lives as settlers, and their strength in building a community out of desolate desert. Her story was powerful and multi-faceted. No characters were all good or all bad. You could sympathize with the men, torn between the love for their first wives and the church’s command to take more women into their homes. And the plight of the women was especially poignant; sharing their husband with multiple woman and slowly becoming phased out of their families as they became older and less desirable.
I felt the modern story was a little weaker. I liked Jordan, but I was not as drawn into his story. It often felt too forced to me, but perhaps that was because it was paralleled with Ann Eliza’s remarkable story. There are also many narrators in the novel. We have Ann Eliza, members of her family, Brigham Young, Mormon scholars, Eliza’s children, and Jordan all telling their parts of the story. While I first found this distracting, I eventually enjoyed the unique perspective each provided, and how all their stories intertwined. This novel approaches many big themes: faith, family obligation, and freedom of religion. While The 19th Wife definitely takes some sides on the issue, it does do an excellent job at getting the reader to think of the other perspectives. I also recommend Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer for those interested in this topic.