David Ebershoff | The 19th Wife (Random House, 507 pgs.)

book_ebershoff.jpgIn light of the recent raid on polygamous Mormon households, The 19th Wife seems especially timely.







In light of the recent raid on polygamous Mormon households, including the temporary removal of children from multi-wife families, David Ebershoff’s new book The 19th Wife seems especially timely. It is, to be sure, a fascinating, fast and educational read.

The premise of The 19th Wife is this: Jordan Scott, son of one of his father’s many wives, returns home after being excommunicated six years earlier to investigate and, ultimately, defend his mother’s arrest for his father’s murder. His mother, we are told, was the 19th wife; left behind as evidence was a chat window (yes, despite having multiple wives and countless children, the good Mormon man was trolling the Internet in search of more celestial wives, as they were called) wherein the father said his 19th wife was at the door.

The book intersperses Jordan’s first-person story with (fictionalized, yet accurate) newspaper articles, college research papers and the story of Ana Eliza Young, who was considered Brigham Young’s 19th wife. (There is much debate over which number she actually was; some estimates put her at 52.) If you’re not up on your Mormon history, you’ll soon learn that Ana Eliza was the one who fled her polygamous life and went on the speaking circuit, becoming the first to expose the injustices of celestial marriage.

We learn that all of Latter Day Saints’ culture is driven by a man deemed The Prophet. Back before Brigham Young held that title, the then-profit conceived of polygamy as necessary for carrying out God’s will. There was no free choice in the matter; either you were following the commandment or you were on the black side of the church.

Through the tales, we learn of the betrayal and burden first wives were forced to endure as their husbands moved to other beds, his wives growing younger and younger over the years. These good LDS men often renumbered their wives, ceasing to count ones who had fallen out of favor; their homes (various wives were set up in various households based on their standing in the husband’s eyes) were filled with children, too many for the father to tend to or remember. Polygamy, we are told, cheats the women and children the most; for their part, the men seemed horribly misguided and, ultimately, altogether selfish; in following God’s supposed will, they became in effect kings of their domain, and they acted as such.

Jordan, for his part, intercedes on his mother’s behalf, in order to prove her innocence. At first, he is not convinced, but the more he digs into her case (with the help of his mother’s public defender, Mr. Heber), the more he comes to believe her story. The efforts serve to bring mother and son closer than they have been in years, yet it is impossible to fully overcome the scars of being dumped on the side of the road at 14 and told never to return.

Ebershoff obviously did his fair share of research on this one. He claims to have written the book in novel form rather than nonfiction because, as he says in a Q&A provided with the press copy of the book, "I’m a novelist, and that’s the form I think in."

Whether you’re drawn to fiction or nonfiction, the tight writing, vivid characters and exposé on the Latter Day Saints are all solid reasons for picking up this book. What you end up with, ultimately, is a tale of disgrace, disgust and, ultimately, forgiveness. A compelling read, most certainly. | Laura Hamlett

About Laura Hamlett 467 Articles
Laura Hamlett is the Managing Editor of PLAYBACK:stl. In a past life, she was also a music publicist and band manager. Besides music, books, and other forms of popular culture, she's a fan of the psychology behind true crime and violent criminals. Ask her about mass murder...if you dare.

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