The 19th Wife: A Novel by David Ebershoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The 19th Wife drew my attention as I was checking out Under the Banner of Heaven for the second time. This is quite likely my least well articulated review, but I found myself with so much to say after reading this, I'm still editing and tweaking a post about it. I find books about any religion that deal with the history and founding of it, in conjunction with how those ideals are standing up now, very interesting. There were several things that I really liked about this book, but here are just a few;
Ebershoff has you on the edge of your google button throughout the entire novel, wondering which parts of Ann Eliza's tale are straight from her book, and what has been embellished in order to keep the book moving. Twisting the two stories of Ann Eliza Young, the famed '19th wife' of Brigham Young (Mormon prophet) who left the church and denounced plural marriage and a modern-day '19th wife' in the polygamous sect 'The Firsts' who is accused of murdering her husband.
I appreciated that the author was very clear in the modern-day scenario to separate the polygamous group from the official LDS church, as they are so often lumped together. Kelly Dee, a graduate student at BYU's Women's Studies program is writing a thesis throughout and it documents her attempts to gain access to the sealed archives that would shed light on the details of Brigham and Ann Eliza. She is ultimately given access and able to complete her thesis.
Kelly made the statement several times in her request that by embracing their history, and acknowledging their polygamist past that the Mormon church would be able to truly move forward. Had the doctrine of polygamy not been retracted in 1890, it's thought that the faith would surely have fizzled out to just a fringe group.
Being able to acknowledge that, of course there are things in the church's past that are unsavory, and motives that can be questioned, and practices that should never have been endorsed but were...that's true of any religion.
The storyline regarding the modern-day "Wife #19" was so intriguing because it shed some light on just how little the people living in communes and other cults question what they're being told. Jordan, a son of Wife 19 had been previously ex-communicated for taking his step-sister's hand during a conversation, so was living elsewhere when news of the murder hit the news stands. Throughout the novel, he's returned to Mesadale, home of The Firsts, so that he can attempt to assist in his mother's defense.
Because this review doesn't contain spoilers, you'll have to read for yourself to find out 'who done it'.
If you're concerned that having people read this book will give them ammunition in their theological arguments against the modern-day church, I don't think that's the case. Everybody loves to read about a scandal...a book about your average LDS dentist neighbor, his friendly wife, and five hard-working caffeine-and-R-rated film-free kids probably wouldn't be flying off the shelves.
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