Saturday, June 14, 2008

Book Review: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

I read The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff for the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. It's part historical (about Brigham Young's 19th wife, Ana Eliza, who brings attention to the polygamy problem) and part modern day murder mystery where a "lost boy" (young Mormon boys kicked out of the Mesadale community so that they won’t be competition for the older men in getting girls) tries to help clear his mother (herself a 19th wife) from murder charges.

The historical part of the book starts with Ana Eliza’s mother’s back story and conversion to LDS (Latter Day Saints), her marriage, and her devastation when her husband is ordered by the prophet to take a second wife. As the narrative goes on, we see how plural marriage negatively affects nearly everyone involved, certainly the wives who become jealous, petty, and bitter, but also the husbands who don’t have enough resources to cope with so many wives and children, and then the children who must compete for affection with scores of others. We also see how anyone who disagrees with the doctrine of the church (or Brigham Young’s whims) is systematically destroyed (emotionally, financially, physically or all three).

The modern day part is a fascinating look into polygamy as it exists today (a very timely subject considering the recent raid on a compound in Texas). The main character here, the teenaged Jordan, is definitely damaged from his abandonment, but is resourceful and forgiving enough to help his mother with her legal woes (she’s been accused of killing Jordan’s father). He enlists help from a colorful cast of characters, including 2 young Mesadale runaways, a sympathetic postmaster in Mesadale, a hotel worker with which he has a romance of sorts, and a step-sister Queenie who still lives within the compound and is now married to one of its police officers.

Though this novel is almost 600 pages long and includes many historical documents, it never felt like a chore to read. I don’t read that much historical fiction, but interestingly enough, the last one I did read (and loved), Kurt Anderson’s “Heyday” covered roughly the same time period and even explored some of the Mormon settlements that appear here. I also knew some about Mormon history going in (I did live in Utah for 2 years), but this filled in a lot of blanks.

I am very glad I got the chance to read this, and highly recommend other readers check it out when it comes out on August 5th.


paperxxflowers said...

That is a good sonnet. I was still on my Julius Caesar kick when I answered "Et tu, Brute?". I love that line because it's just like the whole play summed down into one line: You, my friend, are betraying me too?

Great review. I never thought about picking up a book with a poligamy background.

Liviania said...

I tend to avoid historical fiction, but this does seem interesting. I know very little about the LDS despite being friends with several Mormons.

Wendi said...

I simply loved this book! I just posted a review (thanks for letting me know you've reviewed it too), and I am going to add a link to your review - hope that is ok!! I'm glad you liked it too - you were absolutely correct - it was a long book, but it didn't seem that way.

:) Wendi