Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The 19th Wife

The 19th Wife: A Novel by David Ebershoff.
Random House (2008), Hardcover, 528 pages

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff is unconventional in that it combines historical facts with a whodunnit set in the modern age to delve into the history of the Mormon Church, specifically into the institution of polygamy. The first storyline explores the fate of BeckyLynn, the so-called 19th wife of a present day polygamist living in a First Church commune in Mesadale, Utah. (The First Church of the book is a conservative offshoot of the Church of Latter Day Saints, having broken away when the Mormon Church made polygamy illegal in order for Utah to join the United States.) Everyone, including her gay (and excommunicated) son Jordan, believes that she has killed her husband, though she professes her innocence. Jordan Scott is a "lost boy", who was excommunicated from the church at the age of fourteen. Now twenty, and living in Los Angeles, Jordan finds himself organizing the defense for his mother, against whom the case looks almost watertight.

The second storyline, and really the force de rigeur that propels the book, is the story of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, one of the earliest prophets in the Mormon Church and a major proponent of polygamy. Ann Eliza is courted by Young with theater roles after her failed first marriage and subsequent divorce leaves her with two sons and little by way of sustenance. She finds herself unable to resist Young but slowly gets disillusioned with the marriage. When she loses her status as one of Young's favored wives, she is banished to an outpost to fend for herself. It is here, by renting rooms to Gentile (ie non-Mormon) boarders that she comes into contact with the outside world. She begins questioning her marriage, Brigham's status as an infallible prophet and the Church itself, and encouraged by her boarders, finally manages to escape with her sons.

Through both the stories we see the effects of polygamy on the women and children that are caught in its suffocating vortex. Jealousies, rivalries and low self esteem gnaw at the women, while the children crave the love of their fathers who have only so much time, and hence love, to apportion to each wife and child in their care. And yet, most women and children fear leaving the setup, having been brainwashed that polygamy is a pre-requisite for salvation. The girls of the church get cherrypicked by older men, but many boys are driven out of the fold, often on frivolous grounds, simply because of the threat they pose to the older men.

Ebershoff employs several clever constructs to bring this book to life. Newspaper accounts, lecture excerpts, thesis papers all come together to recreate Ann Eliza's life. Sometimes the shift betweent the historical account and the present-day murder mystery gets momentarily confusing, but the pace and style never fail to grip. A very interesting book. Several reviewers have already commented on the timing of the book, close on the heels of the recent scandal in Texas where the Child Protection Agency swooped down on the Yearning for Zion ranch, and taking into custody 300+ minor children following accusations of child abuse and polygamy. It is indeed sad that more than a 100 years of Ann Eliza's first rebellious stand against polygamy, the state still finds itself unable to crackdown on the practise in any meaningful manner, resorting to smokescreens like child abuse and underage sex to prosecute cults.

Rating: 3.5

(Review crossposted on LibraryThing)

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