Sunday, October 09, 2011

19th Wife

My husband's been amusing himself with the repeated phrase, "One's enough!" while I've been reading The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff.  Very funny.  However, nineteen is an intolerable number of wives, and the repetition of this number throughout this novel about polygamy is a continual reminder of an incomprehensible number of marriages.

Ebershoff tells parallel stories of two women who were (approximately) the 19th wives.  One is based on the real-life figure of Ann Eliza Young, who was married to early Later Day Saints prophet Brigham Young; the other is (the fictitious) BeckyLyn, jailed and accused of murdering her polygamous husband in rural, present-day Utah. 

Ann Eliza
The Ann Eliza narrative provides an eye-opening history of the formation of what is now the Mormon religion, and, not inconsequentially, the expansion of America into the west.  Ann Eliza was married, against her will, to Young (age 67), and then, as one might imagine, largely neglected and abandoned, being, more likely, the the 26th or possibly 52nd of 55ish wives.  After a court battle to divorce Young, she wrote a book (also called the 19th Wife) and had a popular lecturing tour to talk about life in her former community. 

Although the Ann Eliza chapters are historically interesting, they're also a little boring, and I ended up skimming a lot of the ho-hum bits re: tilling the unforgiving soil of Utah etc. of which I could not give two shits.

The modern tale is more interesting, told from the perspective of Jordan, a young man who was excommunicated, or forcibly expelled from his LDS household, as boys often are (to eliminate possible rivals from the marriage pool.)  After years of struggle, Jordan has managed to get his footing, but gets pulled back into his former life when his mother is accused of murdering his father, and he begins investigating to find out what really happened.  Jordan is a charming, loveable character with enough distance to guide the reader through what may be a first-time view into this very particular slice of Americana. 
Brigham Young

The book is frequently cited as raising many "questions" about faith and religious practice.  At least for me, as I have fairly established views on polygamy, Ebershoff's book did not cause me to raise any questions but rather helped solidify my opinions about polygamy, at least as practiced for religious purposes. 

Ebershoff does some interesting things with switching narratives and including bits as if from Wikipedia, 19th c. newpapers, interviews, letters, a BYU thesis, ect.  Typeface and even the odd illustration made the reading experience a bit richer.  Personally I thought the book sort of walked a tight balance between the sort of salacious schlocky-ness of best-sellers to more thoughtful literature, but, at the end of the day, the truth is that I found it pretty hard to put down, and, aside from the skimming I might have done, an engrossing story. 

A favorite part:
I can't tell you what Kelly was thinking, but I was thinking, Look at this girl. LDS through and through. BYU rah rah rah. Rise, all loyal Cougars and hur your challenge to the foe. No coffee, no tea, no Diet Coke, never a drink or a smoke or a hit, temple garments as white as Wasatch snow, Relief Society chick, missionary missy [...] Here she was, Kelly Dee, of hearty Pioneer stock, always well loved, always loving, three years from marriage, four from motherhood, Sister Kelly, who probably plans for week in advance when it's her turn to stand up in church and bear witness, Sister Kelly, Who probably keeps a to-do list clipped to her fridge, who probably spends Sunday nights shampooing those waves of blond hair, so clean, so hardworking, a human honeybee, she of the Chosen people, of the desert kingdom, of the Saints. Yes, here she was, sitting in a crappy office chair helping kids like me. And not just helping, because there are people who are like, Oh, you poor thing, and cluck their tongues, and maybe give you a dollar, but they don't understand and don't want to understand.  And then there are people who are like, Oh, you poor thing, now come and meet my God, He is the only way. But not Kelly - she wasn't just helping, assisting, offering a hand. No, she was researching, reading, learning, talking, understanding. Working hard to understand, wanting to understand, telling herself that's the most important thing she can do.


Carrie said...

Man, I am glad you didn't link my review of the book. Your review is so much better! Man, that Brighman- he wasn't much of a looker, but I guess he had charism.

I like that last quote a lot. It reminds me of a theme from The Postmistress when asked what should we all do in the face of the horribleness of war. The idea of knowing about something, trying to understand and bearing witness is very powerful.

KHM said...

ooh! This one is among my library's Kindle collection! I will get it now!

Italia said...

This novel was fantastic. It was extremely informative and interesting. I loved the parallel stories about the infamous Ann Eliza Young and a fictional, modern day plural wife. It is very well written and was enjoyable to read. It made me think and it made me curious to know more about the Church of the Latter-Day Saints.