The 19th Wife – Book Review

Plurality Tale

Published: August 29, 2008
Faith can make troubling claims on believers. In a prison diary — one of the many fictional documents in David Ebershoff’s third novel, “The 19th Wife” — the Mormon leader Brigham Young states one such problem plainly: “I know my faith to be the true faith of God . . . yet I cannot force belief upon others — or can I? Is this not my task, my mission? . . . I cannot know.”

Brigham Young married many women, some more by force than by choice. One of these women — officially his 19th wife (though the number was probably much higher) — rebelled. Her name was Ann Eliza, and she is a central character in Ebershoff’s book. A fictionalized version of her story runs alongside a murder mystery narrated by Jordan Scott, the son of a modern 19th wife who has been charged with killing her husband, one of the leaders of Mesadale, a modern-day fundamentalist community. Devout despite a wretched life, BeckyLyn Scott says she didn’t do it, and Jordan believes her.

In both narratives, polygamy is often brutally described. Yet the novel is too politic and sensitive to equate this practice with slavery (as some of the characters do), and it evinces a respect for the difficult mysteries of faith as well as the importance of the family, however that might be defined. In the end, though, Jordan Scott has an answer for Brigham Young’s question.

Now 20, Jordan was kicked out of Mesa­dale at the age of 14 for holding his step­sister’s hand. Mesadale, Jordan makes clear, is not a typical Mormon community. “We were something else — a cult, a cowboy theocracy, a little slice of Saudi America.” (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially renounced polygamy in 1890; while Mesadale is invented, some splinter groups continue to practice what the founder of the religion, Joseph Smith, called “celestial” marriage.)

Jordan is appealing, and though his quest to exonerate his mother sometimes reads like a caper, his wry, caustic voice provides a nice counterbalance to the staid, arch style of Ann Eliza. The daughter of early Mormon converts — her father built more than 1,000 wagons for the trek to the Great Salt Lake — she saw how plural marriage wrecked her mother’s life. After Young pressured Ann Eliza into becoming his wife, she took her case to the American public, becoming a one-woman anti-polygamy movement.

Ann Eliza is no saint, and Ebershoff credibly renders her complex character — driven, intelligent, vain, a little proud. Ann Eliza also has an eye for the damning detail, especially when it comes to the unusual humiliations suffered by plural wives. In one such instance, she records the dinner conversation in Young’s compound as his wives stand in line by his place at the head of the table, each granted a minute or two to tell him their concerns: “ ‘I need a new kettle.’ ‘I found my hand-glass in Sister Clara’s room.’ ‘Susannah isn’t reading properly.’ ‘There’ll be another next June.’ ”

Despite the high hurdles Ebershoff has erected, the novel flows surprisingly well. The author does little to link his two main stories; he employs voices that range from formal to fey; a few plot lines seem overburdened. He includes, not always successfully, newspaper articles, term papers, letters and other “primary” sources. (Is it possible to fake a Wikipedia article without seeming cute?) And some of his points seem obvious — yes, polygamy is inherently unfair.

In a less talented writer’s hands, “The 19th Wife” could have turned into a Rube Goldberg contraption. But in the end the multiplicity of perspectives serves to broaden Ebershoff’s depiction not only of polygamy, but also of the people whose lives it informs. And this gives his novel a rare sense of moral urgency.

Louisa Thomas is a contributing editor for Newsweek.

Source : The New York Times.

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