Books: The 19th Wife

Following my recent penchant for historical fiction, my latest audiobook selection from the library was David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife. I was initially somewhat hesitant to read a book about the Mormons and polygamy – I just could find nothing very appealing in those topics. But it was somewhat intriguing that the novel combines the historical fiction, following the life of Ann Eliza Young, with a modern murder mystery.

I’m not sure just how well the combination works. On the whole I enjoyed the chapters of narrated by Ann Eliza Young more than those narrated by Jordan Scott, a young man whose mother is in jail for allegedly killing his father. But I realize that Ebershoff wants to tell not only the story of one woman who fought to have polygamy outlawed in this country, but also how polygamy continues to affect people today.

I think I had read at some point that even after the Mormons repudiated polygamy as a doctrine and as a practice, some of them chose to continue the practice, creating their own sects separate from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But I knew next to nothing about them and had never been particularly interested in knowing more.

Through Jordan, Ebershoff paints a particularly unpleasant picture of life in a polygamous community. Children grow up knowing only what they are taught by “the prophet” (who teaches them many falsehoods about the outside world). They get scant attention from their fathers, who must divvy up their time among all their wives and dozens of children (the men resort to charts to keep track of time spent with each wife, including the intimate details). For the girls, little attention from their fathers may be a good thing, as it is not unknown for a man to see his own daughter as a potential mate.

Many boys, on the other hand, end up getting excommunicated and expelled from the community, as Jordan did. Supposedly it was for holding hands with a girl (who was one of his half-sisters), but the motive behind such expulsions has as much to do with leaving the young women available for older men to take as new wives, as with the legalistic morality promulgated by the Prophet.

In such a twisted setting, it hardly seems surprising that Jordan’s father has been shot and killed by one of his wives. But Jordan’s mother claims she did not do it, and Jordan comes to believe her — because despite everything, she remains a devout believer in both the doctrines she was taught and the accompanying way of life. He spends the rest of the novel trying to find evidence to exonerate her by finding the true killer.

As a murder mystery, it’s not great. I realize that Ebershoff wanted to tell parallel stories, about two 19th wives (both Ann Eliza and Jordan’s mother BeckyLyn were told they were nineteenth wives, though the numbering system is suspect). But he does much better at portraying the lives and motivations of the historical characters than of plotting a murder mystery. I think he could have accomplished his purpose better by just portraying the present-day lives of polygamy’s victims, minus the murder mystery angle.

Some reviews fault Ebershoff for including supposed newspaper articles and other documents, even a (fake) Wikipedia article, to give the appearance of scholarly support for the information included in the more obviously fictional chapters. I didn’t find them distracting, exactly, but it could lead to some confusion as to whether they are real documents or not. Enough of them seemed to obviously tied to details that had to be fictional that I concluded they were all fictional. (But I did check Wikipedia to see what I found.)

I happen to like that particular literary technique, creating fictive reference material written in the form of real scholarly documents and footnotes. When I was a girl, planning to be a novelist myself when I grew up, I came up with the idea for a story about some other world, and I was going to come up with a whole history and mythology for it, and add notes to the story referencing supposed academic works about it. I don’t think I had read any books like that, and when I did eventually read some, as an adult, I suppose I liked the fact that my idea was evidently a good one.

But if Ebershoff wants people to care about real people suffering real problems, it may not be a good idea to confuse people about what is real and what is not. If someone looks for the Wikipedia article and does not find it, will they wonder just how much of what is in the novel is really just the fruit of Ebershoff’s imagination? Maybe most readers can figure it out. But it does seem to have too much potential to confuse.

Apparently Ann Eliza Young did really write a memoir, and one of the reviews of this novel says that Ebershoff drew on it a great deal to speak in Ann Eliza’s own voice. Yet it seems there must be a limit to how much he could quote directly. I’m curious — but probably not enough to go try to find out more about her actual memoir. I feel confident that Ebershoff portrayed her and her experiences faithfully, even as he depicts her shortcomings as well as her strengths.

The issues brought up by the novel — from both historical and modern stories — are what interest me. What would attract someone to that religious tradition? I find it interesting that Ann Eliza’s mother was originally attracted by Joseph Smith’s emphasis on Jesus’ teaching to love one another, which he felt that all the Christian churches of that time had forgotten, in their emphasis on doctrine or ritual.

Ann Eliza reports that, growing up in an insular community, Mormon beliefs were all she knew, just as Jordan Scott in the modern story reports. People exposed to no other ideas naturally believe what everyone around them believes. And potential converts on the outside are no doubt given a version of belief and practices sanitized of those elements that might be objectionable.

I have known a few Mormons, but not very well. I had a classmate in grad school who had done his two years as a Mormon missionary. He and I had a number of interesting conversations, but we never got deep into doctrinal issues. I have an acquaintance now whose daughters are finishing their missionary work, but I don’t know her well and have never asked about her religion (these days I rarely see her except on facebook).

What do they think about their church’s history? In the book, someone asks how one doctrine, that of “celestial marriage,” can be determined to no longer be binding, but others remain authoritative. No satisfactory answer is given, and I wonder how Mormons today would answer.

At the time (in the late nineteenth century), the Mormons tried to make it an issue of religious freedom. Today we still have trouble determining where to draw the line so that religious freedom is neither denied, nor allowed to be used as an excuse for denying other people their rights. (Current issues in this regard relate to the contraception mandate, and matters related to same-sex marriage.) In Ebershoff’s book, polyamory is acceptable when only consenting adults are involved, but a line is crossed as soon as children are involved.

Since almost every marriage, plural or otherwise, has the potential to create children, it seems that such a principle would preclude plural marriage to begin with. And Ebershoff depicts the many negative aspects for the women in these marriages, even if they are “consenting.” After all, if the only community you know says this is how you have to live, especially if it is taught as a condition of eternal salvation, freely given consent is really not very free.

And for those who do not live in such a self-contained community? Recent TV series such as Sister Wives and My Five Wives have attempted to reduce the stigma of polygamy and portray the essential normality of these families. Some people point out the lack of an outright commandment against polygamy in the Scriptures, and the potential for “sister wives” to support one another emotionally as well as sharing the work (and marital duties).

But this article explains that societies have generally banned polygamy due to the serious social ills it causes. While there may be exceptions where the arrangement seems to work, the more common experience seems to be that depicted in The 19th Wife.


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