Review: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
The name Brigham Young no doubt sounds familiar to many people, the university, the Church- but where did he come from? What’s his deal? In David Ebershoff’s “The 19th Wife” the life of Brighman Young is explained amplified to the point of including excerpts from his prison diary. The story has several intertwining stories involved: a modern-day murder mystery within a polygamist colony, the story of Ann Eliza Young, a graduate student’s research paper, and several other lectures and accounts of goings on during that time period.
One of narratives revolves around a 20 year old boy, Jordan who was exiled from his polygamist community when he was 14 for holding a girl’s hand. Jordan’s character is known in real life as one of the “lost boys”. The lost boys are young boys, usually between the ages of 10-16 who the Prophet decides does not need to part a part of the fold anymore, so their mothers are instructed to drop them off, usually on the side of a highway in the middle of the night. Jordan’s story touches on the grief of being abandoned by his family, but is mainly concerned with a murder mystery. When Jordan discovers that his mother is on trial for murdering his father, Jordan believes that she is innocent and embarks on the journey of proving that. Jordan’s voice is refreshing, compared to the restrained voice of Ann Eliza, and allows the reader to feel a little more of a connection to him over Ann Eliza.
The second prominent narrative is that of Ann Eliza Young. Her mother was an early convert of Joseph Smith, the founder of The Latter-day Saints, as was her father. Their story describes the almost immediate rejection the majority of the Saints felt towards polygamy, or “Celestial Marriage” before Brigham Young (who took over when Smith was murdered) made it a obligatory. Her tale begins with how plural marriage essentially ruined her mother’s life and the disintegration of their family. Ann Eliza was pursued by Young for many years, until he, basically, made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. In her story, she notes many details including the humiliation that Young subjected his many wives to, including each of them lining up at the dinner table and being allowed 1-2 minutes each to speak with him. Her story then continues with her quest to outlaw polygamy in the United States, including her official breaking away from the Church as well as her journals on the road lecturing.
Ebershoff’s voice for each character is incredibly different, yet pulled off extremely well. Although the point of the novel is clear- polygamy is morally unfair- the book also leaves the reader with a sense of dutiful drive, thinking “what can I do to stop this?”
Basically- I LOVED it. I felt like it was an incredible book, and honestly, I couldn’t put it down. While, we need to keep in mind that this is an entirely fictionalized version of Ann Eliza’s diary, the outside research included in the book allows us to understand that this is about as close to the truth as you can get. It’s definitely a must read.
Questions? COmments? Let me know!
ALSO- keep a lookout on Sunday for my first Woman of the Week!