Polygamy Through The Eyes Of The 19th WifeFebruary 8, 2011 No Comments
Polygamy both fascinates and repels us. On one hand the idea is titillating, while on the other it seems old-fashioned and prudish. Are the wives brain-washed by their religious sects, or are they open-minded enough to acknowledge what works for them?
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff has parallel plots which explore the 18th C. roots of polygamy in Mormonism and its more modern iteration.
His heroine, Ann Eliza Young, was a real woman who was married to Brigham Young until she filed for divorce and became a outspoken critic of polygamy. She wrote the autobiography, Wife No. 19, which is one of the historical sources which informs Ebershoff’s novel.
However, the book is more than a retelling of Young’s life. We meet the character in her youth and explore her parents’ decisions to join the newly formed religious sect. As Mormonism evolves they struggle with the changes to their lifestyle, and the eventual inclusion of sisterwives.
In the 20th C. Jordan Scott returns to Utah for the first time since he was expelled by his Mormon sect at the age of 14. He is there to investigate the murder of his father by his 19th wife, who is also Scott’s mother.
Through him we learn about the experience of the “Lost Boys,” teenage boys who are kicked out of their communities for minor infractions to free up the teenage girls for marriage to the older men.
The tales paint a negative picture of Mormonism, but the author is far from heavy-handed or dictatorial. We see the religion through the admittedly biased eyes of our very flawed protagonists. Both are outsiders who were unable to fit into their communities, and for who the advantages of the tight-knit families are lost.
The historical sections of the novel were more engaging for me than the modern parts, which delved less into the daily details of the polygamists. However, woven in and out of one another, the two sections informed each other to create a comprehensive look at the practice of polygamy in Mormonism.
This is a great book for anyone who is curious about polygamy and Mormonism. Ebershoff is careful to restrict himself to the facts and does not indulge in horrifying flights of fancy. It brilliantly portrays the daily lives of these women and how polygamy affects their personal relationships.
Not a light book for a flight or the beach, but a perfect book to curl up with on a rainy day. Get lost in another world and emerge hours later, knowing a little more than before.
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