In the 1870s, Ann Eliza Young, one of the many women married to Latter-Day Saints leader Brigham Young, petitioned for divorce and began a nationwide crusade to end polygamy in Utah and in the Mormon church. Referring to herself as the 19th wife (the number by which Brigham referred to her as well), she gave lectures around the nation of the unspeakable harm done to women and children as the result of polygamy. Meanwhile, in the twenty-first century, Jordan Scott is stunned to find that his mother has been arrested for killing his father. Born into a polygamist family before being excommunicated as a teenager, Jordan finds himself returning to the home he’d left behind. The stories of Ann Eliza and Jordan are intertwined as each contemplates the ramifications of polygamy in their time.
When I began reading The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, I wasn’t entirely certain what I was getting myself into. My knowledge of the Mormon Church is limited to having had a few Mormon friends over the years. And of course, it’s hard to miss the headlines about members of the FLDS, the breakaway sect of the church that still practices polygamy. Yet knowledge of the Mormon church is not necessary for this book. Ebershoff provides a crash course in LDS history- some of it real, some of it fictional. The novel skips back and forth between the 1800s and Ann Eliza’s struggle, and the present day, where Jordan tries to clear his mother’s name and get to the truth about who killed his father. Though on the surface these events don’t really seem to be connected, Ann Eliza’s story provides the background of Jordan’s story: problems she predicted would come about because of polygamy ultimately happened to Jordan, or to people he has met.
I thought this was an excellent story, in terms of both contemporary fiction and historical fiction. Ann Eliza and Jordan both had engaging stories that made me eager to know what would happen to them next. I thought it was a good touch that Ebershoff provided additional interpretations of Ann Eliza’s story by including accounts from her father, brother, and son, as well as newspaper articles from the time (and even a brief account from Brigham Young. I also thought the inclusion of the master’s thesis by Kelly Dee was a unique way of weaving these two tales together. Though much of it is fictional, or has been liberally altered by Ebershoff, it just made the story seem so much more rich and detailed.
I highly recommend this book.
Rating: 4.5 stars
Publisher, ISBN: Random House, 9781400063970