Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The 19th Wife

by David Ebershoff

Don’t you just love books that are both insightful and entertaining at the same time? I certainly do. This story tells of plural marriage in at least two points of view - Ann Eliza Young, the “19th” wife of Brigham Young, and Jordan Scott, the son of a 21st century 19th wife in a First Latter-Day Saints community. Ann Eliza goes on to defect from the Church and lecture about the atrocities of plural marriage, and Jordan’s mom is accused of killing his father in a fit of jealous rage. Both stories are engrossing and captivating.

I love Jordan’s voice. He’s definitely a 20-year-old finding his way after his mom dropped him by the side of the road because the Prophet told her to. He almost doesn’t want to help her; it’s hard for him to forgive her. He’s self-effacing and real; he sounds very much like a young man trying to do the right thing. In telling his story, Jordan kept it very simple, and yet his descriptions of the desert or of the setting sun or of his emotions were very vivid.

Even if the author didn’t give us chapter titles, the reader would be able to tell the difference between Jordan’s voice and Ann Eliza’s. Ann Eliza has that educated, almost haughty tone of people of the 19th Century (why don’t we talk like that anymore?). I can just open the book to any random page and tell you whether it’s Jordan or Ann Eliza speaking. It’s talent to be able to go back and forth between centuries and get the correct tone out of a character.

The author tells us in the acknowledgements that he took some liberties with the historical facts, and I’m ok with that. The story is based on the life of Ann Eliza and the Mormon Church, much like many movies are based on a true story. He’s a novelist; he’s allowed to embellish. It’s what he does. But a reader who knows nothing about Mormonism and polygamy does at least get an idea of what it must be like to be in that situation. The feelings and emotions that a plural wife or the child of a plural marriage must have are probably the same despite the historical facts or fictions.

Not only do we get to read about Ann Eliza and Jordan Scott, but every once in a while, the author throws in some insight from Ann Eliza’s father, Chauncey Webb, her son, Lorenzo, or even Brigham Young himself. Each of these pieces adds more flavor to the story as a whole and gives the reader a broader picture of the Mormon Church. We even read a bit from Harriet Beecher Stowe and get to see a poster of Ann Eliza’s lecture at a Lyceum in Boston. These little details enhance the historical picture of the novel.

This is my first real experience with Mormonism and polygamy. I mean, I’ve heard of it before, I knew it existed, but that’s as far as I knew. Being from Boston, I know Mitt Romney is a Mormon (he was our governor for a while), but I never really knew what that meant. This novel gave me more education on the religion, both the historical aspects and what exactly they believe, especially why a woman would enter into a plural marriage. I really enjoyed it.

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