The 19th Wife: A Book Review

by AmyB

A work of historical fiction interwoven with present-day mystery, The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff makes a timely debut in the era of HBO’s Big Love and the media frenzy surrounding Warren Jeffs and the Texas FLDS families. It tells a tale of Ann Eliza Young, plural wife to Brigham Young, who later left him and became outspoken against polygamy. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both make their appearances in the story, each portrayed in rich complexity, including both their charismatic brilliance and their human flaws.

Ebershoff makes an admirable exploration into the life and times of people in the early church. Asking and providing his answers to such questions as: Why did they join? Under what circumstances did they come to accept and practice polygamy? What was the effect on families and children? Although the author is not Mormon, to someone who grew  up in the LDS church, he tells the narrative in a way that feels mostly familiar and correct.

Ann Eliza’s story is fascinating in its own right, but in this book she also provides a counterpoint to a present day mystery involving the murder of a polygamous husband, allegedly by one of his wives in a small, isolated polygamous community similar to Colorado City who call themselves the “Firsts.” The mystery is more than a whodunit; it also asks “How can people live like this and why do they stay?” The depictions of life there are chilling and heart-breaking. The stage is set by Ann Eliza’s story, but the final acts of the story play out a century later, when some consequences of the doctrine of polygamy come to fruition. The relation of the present day LDS church to polygamous FLDS-like communities is also explored in a rich and insightful way.

While based in extensively researched historical fact, some LDS readers will probably be uncomfortable with aspects of the book, such as depictions of the early versions of the LDS temple ceremony and some events in church history that are missing from Sunday school and seminary lessons. However, the book would not be as rich without telling the whole story. I enjoyed the strong female characters and the many perspectives through which the story is told. Engagingly and thoughtfully written, this book is worth picking up and would certainly make for some lively discussion at an adventurous Relief Society book club near you.

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  1. Caroline says:

    Thanks Amyb,
    I think I will put this on my list for my book group. Sounds like a fun read.

    I usually am attracted to female authors, (in fact, I rarely read fiction written by men) but it sounds like this guy did a good job dealing with issues of gender and power.

  2. Kiri Close says:

    THIS LOOKS GOOOOOOOOOOOOOD! Checkin’ out amazon right now for it!
    =k.

  3. AmyB says:

    Caroline, I don’t think you’ll regret this one. I don’t know that I’d call it a fun read . . . it stirs up some painful stuff, and the plight of the women is so heartbreaking, but I think you’ll find it a very rewarding read.

    I neglected to mention in my review that the primary narrator of the present-day story in this book is a young gay man who was kicked out of the polygamous community at a young age. So in addition to issues of gender and power, it deals with sexual orientation. Lot’s of good stuff. 🙂

  4. G says:

    oh, gotta read it! thanks for the tip.

  5. Kiri Close says:

    19th Wife just arrived in my mailbox yesterday. But because I’m in the middle of reading for my lesson plans (I teach writing and literature at the tribal Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota just north of us), I won’t be able to pick it up til maybe Christmas!

    Another book I’m even more keen on lately is Stew Magnusson’s “The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder”. He’ll be on campus tomorrow, and in the small town we live in, Gordon, NE next week for discussions and book signings — oddly, some shady murderer fellers from this small town triggered the AIM – American Indian Movement: and we live here!

    Too exciting to pass up, and at a Gordon community bookclub a few days ago, the fear towards Magnusson’s book along with his visits was ever so tangible.

    YAY!

  6. Kiri Close says:

    oops! I meant to say:

    Some murderer fellers triggered action from the American Indian Movement (AIM) which is the basis of one of Stew’s stories in his said book.

  7. Kiri Close says:

    EEEgadZ!

    Still haven’t read it. I’m into Ian Frazier’s ‘On the Rez’, along with reading I’ve gotta do for lit class lessons.

    Don’t worry–I’ll get to ’19th Wife’ soon!

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