Sunday, November 28, 2010

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

Here's a weird fact: the cover of this book is almost exactly the same as that of the first polygamist novel I read; a nice thick braid gracing the back of a woman's neck. Apparently this is an icon of fundamentalism.

The 19th Wife is very long. It consists of two interwoven stories; one set in the present, spanning only a week or so, the other encompassing a woman's entire life in the middle of the 19th century. Jordan is the child of a modern polygamist sect, who was abandoned on the highway as a teenager at the behest of the Prophet. Boys, of course, are competition for church elders (there are just not enough women to go around) and thus are thrown out on the slightest pretext. Jordan's mother, his father's 19th wife, is accused of killing her husband, and her son feels compelled to clear her name. Despite the fact that she agreed to his abandonment. (There is a lot of mother-worship in this book, which I am heartily in favor of.) The other story describes the early days of Mormonism as seen through the eyes of Ann Eliza, who was Brigham Young's 19th wife, but who eventually renounced polygamy. She is credited with helping to end the institution, as least as sanctioned by the Mormon church. See? Just the synopsis is long, and I'm leaving out a lot.

I really enjoyed this book, although I found the accounts of the Pioneers of Mormonism a little too long. I've always maintained that people in the 19th century had a lot of time on their hands. Literature from that period goes on and on and on, and so, apparently, do the memoirs and letters. That said, this is a really great, if biased, history of the Mormon Church. The present-day portion on its own would be a good solid YA book, although the protagonist loses a lot of his edginess during the course of the story, which to my mind diminishes his appeal.

David Ebershoff clearly did a lot of research while writing The 19th Wife. I get most of my knowledge of history from fiction, so it's always nice to know it's authentic. Overall worth reading, particularly if you have a lot of time on your hands.

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