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The 19th Wife by David Ebershof

By Teabelly | Books | February 10, 2010 |

By Teabelly | Books | February 10, 2010 |

Author David Ebershoff has put together one hell of an impressive book here. It’s a story of two parts, set in different times. The first is the story of Jordan, who has been excommunicated from a secretive sect of Mormons known as the Firsts and returns home six years later after his mother is imprisoned for murdering his father. The second focuses on Ann Eliza Young, the wife of Brigham Young, one time Prophet of the Mormon church, and her escape from the clutches of polygamy. Both women are wife number 19, and have had to face hardships because of their faith. Jordan initially believes his mother guilty, but soon comes to see things a different way, leading him to investigate what really happened and return to the town that kicked him out.

Ann Eliza tells of her parents and their conversion to Mormonism, and their love of and faith in Joseph Smith and his religion, how they feel it has saved them, and their ultimate undoing as a couple at his hands. Initially finding the idea of ‘Celestial Marriage’ abhorrent, Ann Eliza’s father comes to embrace it as his duty and way into the afterlife, first marrying the maid and then taking on three more wives in as many months, much to the devastation of his first wife. We’re also given the history of Mormonism as a growing faith, its persecution, its flight across the desert and eventual settlement in Salt Lake, and its achievements, but the main focus is polygamy and how it affects women, children, and indeed the men. It raises questions of faith and love, and whether if you believe one thing to be true within a religion, must you therefore accept all?

The two sections are woven together throughout, but remain separate until they come together in a fashion toward the end. Each tale is so riveting and so expertly told that I wasn’t sure which one I liked more. Every time one came to an end I was frustrated, desperate to find out what happened, but I was soon caught up again in the other. A lot of research went into this book, and it paid off. Ann Eliza is a historical figure, and she did indeed write a book about her experiences as Brigham Young’s wife (you can read it at Ebershoff’s website), but the tale recounted here is fictional. Much of it happened, but how it happened and her feelings about it are all from the author; regardless, it reads very true. I was fascinated by this way of life, and by the origins of Mormonism, the beliefs and move towards polygamy, and the struggle many had with it before seeming to embrace it fully and without remorse. This was God’s will, after all. Ann Eliza’s story contains much history, but it is richly told and never dry, her voice is authoritative but personable, and you do feel for her. I also liked the conflicting points of view given by her family members, and by Brigham Young at different times. There are also fun things like Wikipedia entries and news items, all fictional, but adding to the style of the piece.

Jordan’s story is more of a whodunnit, as he pieces together his father’s final hours, and tries to prove that his mother is innocent. Making life more difficult is the fact that few feel able to talk to him, and the addition of a hanger-on in the form of a young kid, excommunicated like himself. Within Jordan’s story there are excerpts from a master’s thesis about Ann Eliza Young, and letters, again from her relatives, fleshing out her tale. The different voices never clash, and I think Ebershoff does a great job adding personality to them all, without going over the top. I really enjoyed this book, and didn’t want to put it down. I liked the history and learning more about a way of life I hadn’t considered much before, but as well as that it’s just a big, good read, and I do so love those.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Teabelly’s reviews, check out her blog.