The 19th Wife -- A Book Review

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Whenever I see a link to a story about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- and there have been a lot lately, of course -- I can’t help but click on it. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Polygamy holds an undeniable fascination, and the mystery surrounding the FLDS just makes the public more curious. Google Warren Jeffs, and you get half a million hits.

David Ebershoff clearly understands this -- his novel, The 19th Wife, couldn’t be timelier. In it, he imagines the life of church prophet Brigham Young’s 19th wife, Ann Eliza Young. After marrying Young and basically being abandoned by him, in the 1870s, she leaves the church, sues him for divorce -- setting off a media shit storm -- becomes a public figure doing the lecture circuit, and finally writes her bestselling memoirs.

“You might be the most popular woman in America,” a lecture promoter tells her. “Don’t shy away from the more – how should I put it? – difficult aspects of your ordeal. People are fascinated. Absolutely fascinated. You can’t tell them too much.”

The novel intertwines Ann Eliza’s story with the modern-day tale of a lost boy named Jordan Scott whose mother abandoned him on the side of the road when he was a teen, after he was seen holding hands with his step-sister. (He’s gay, by the way.) We meet him as his estranged mother is accused of murdering her husband. She’s fingered in the murder because her husband was playing online poker and chatting online when he was shot. The last thing he typed was that wife No. 19 – Jordan’s mother – was at the door.

Of course, more than a century after Ann Eliza’s in the news, the murder sets off a media shit storm of its own.

The questions of who killed Jordan’s dad and what befalls Ann Eliza are central to the novel. Jordan’s story is fictional, although Ebershoff did interview children who had been excommunicated from the church, among many others. As for Ann Eliza, she really existed. She did leave Brigham Young, and she did give public lectures and write two memoirs. But Ebershoff used the memoirs only as a jumping-off point. The novel is an interesting mix of Ann Eliza’s fictional memoir, first-person narration by Jordan, academic papers, letters, news stories, a Wikipedia entry…

Which is to say, it feels very real. That’s partly because Ebershoff has done his research. His author’s note includes a very long list of books he read about the church -- both LDS and the breakaway FLDS -- and the historical figures that appear in his novel.

The story also feels real because Ebershoff is an excellent writer. One of the most compelling tales in the novel is actually about Ann Eliza’s mother, Elizabeth, an early convert. She and her husband Chauncey are a love match and have a good, monogamous marriage for many years. But after being told by Joseph Smith and then Brigham Young that plural marriage is part of their duty to God, both agree that Chauncey should take another wife – their house girl, Lydia.

What Elizabeth might not have been prepared for, though, is her husband’s response to Lydia’s consent: “Most painfully, Lydia claims that Chauncey, as he finally turned from the mantel, looked as if he might devour the teenage girl.” Then there are Lydia’s loud cries from the other room during the consummation of her marriage, which Elizabeth hears while she’s in the kitchen doing dishes. Yikes.

The 19th Wife is utterly engrossing, and Ebershoff will be reading from it here in Houston on September 11.

Cathy Matusow

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