The 19th Wife: A Book Review
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.