The 19th Wife

Feb 11, 2010

Early followers of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith faced many challenges, none more radical than the practice of polygamy as a path to Heaven. In his latest book, David Ebershoff tells the story of one woman's crusade against plural marriage. Ann Cummins gives her take as part of KNAU's monthly Southwest Book Reviews. David Ebershoff's The 19th Wife is an ambitious book. A good book. It might have been great had it been a little less ambitious.

Ebershoff tells the story of Ann Eliza Young. On record as Brigham Young's 19th wife, she turned renegade in 1873 and fled Utah, fearing for her life. She went public about the suffering of women and children under polygamy.

The real Ann Eliza wrote two memoirs and dozens of lectures a wonderful map into the mind and voice of a fascinating woman. Such detail is gold for a talented fiction writer, and Ebershoff is that. Drawing from historical accounts, he introduces us to a character who's smart, spunky, loyal to her family, faithful to her Prophet, and pragmatic. When her brother risks financial ruin, she saves him by marrying 66 year-old Brigham. She is 23. Through Ann Eliza, we get a candid tour behind the scenes of polygamist life. At the Beehive, where Brigham Young lives with his extended family, the wives jockey for position. There are public wives and secret wives, many more, as it turns out, than the acknowledged nineteen. They form alliances more than friendships. Competition festers. While the favored bask in luxuries, the others stand in line to petition for basic needs like clothes for the children.

But this book is no mere rant about polygamy. It's a well-researched and enlightening tale of Utah's resilient pioneers. Ebershoff tells the story from many points of view. We meet Ann Eliza's mother, a devout Saint conflicted by true faith and by loyalty to her shunned daughter. Ebershoff even inhabits Brigham Young. Through his point of view, we glimpse the mind of a complicated man burdened by leadership.

The problem? Ann Eliza's crusade is only half the story. Ebershoff parallels the historical with a plot about contemporary polygamy and throw-away children. There's a murder mystery. A gay love story. It's easy to see why the author would link the past to present. In recent years, polygamy among Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints has made big news with arrests in Arizona and Texas.

But where Ebershoff's historical characters ring true, the contemporary fall flat. Jordan, the modern gay narrator returns to Utah to help his mother, who is accused of murdering his father. Jordan does have an engaging voice, full of wry humor. But his mother's a stick figure, the mother/son connection, emotionless. Other characters are stereotypes. Jordan's friend Roland begins every conversation with "Oh honey" and sounds like he's auditioning for a sit-com: "Oh honey, that Prophet of yours, he just wants to be left alone."

I find it irritating when a book I like and I do like this one undercuts its own integrity by trying to be everything for everybody. It's hard to understand why a writer gifted at bringing to life historical figures would dilute the impact with a plot line that might well be a season of the HBO series Big Love.