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[206] The 19th Wife – David Ebershoff

wife19“each representative claimed his was the way of Christ . . . for I came to understand, almost instantly, that for two thousand years men have been claiming there is but one way to God: Mine! Satan chuckled over this war of opinion . . .” [241]

The 19th Wife weaves together two stories, one historical and the other modern day, to explore how the Church of Latter Day Saints, by encouraging the practice of polygamy, had led many to legal and theological purgatory. The historical narrative concerns the notorious Ann Eliza Young, known as the 19th wife, who launched a crusade to end polygamy in America after she separated from Brigham Young in 1875. This part of the book reads like Ann Eliza Young’s memoir on her family’s polygamous history, her witness of how the Church sanctioned adultery in the name of God, and her becoming of a plural wife.

. . . say that those who fail to meet the requirements of plural marriage cannot achieve Salvation. It is a point worth emphasizing: The Church—that is, the men Elizabeth [Ann Eliza’s mother] believed and trusted most—was telling her that she would be condemned eternally if she did not submit fully to this hated custom. [114]

While Ann Eliza Young’s campaign outlawed polygamy, it failed to uproot entirely the idea and concept of polygamy. The unfolding of the second narrative, which takes place in the present day Utah, where the Church influence is still clutching, concerns a tale of murder involving a polygamist family. The nineteenth wife is convicted of murdering her husband on the eve of his taking a new wife. Jordan Scott, a young man who was excommunicated by the fundamentalist sect years ago, must re-enter the forbidden territory to investigate the truth that might acquit his mother. Would a woman who actually likes the life of a plural wife kill her husband? Would someone who can submerge her natural impulses for the sake of belief conceive a motive to commit homicide? Anna Eliza and Jordan’s mother’s struggle are the same one: Women had no choice but took consolation that their marital suffering would be rewarded in the afterlife.

. . . he is slicing his time and affection and money and everything else into nineteenths. You will get your share, and your future children will get their share. One-nineteenth. What is rightfully yours will be yours, but no more and no less . . . will such a situation bring you happiness or miser? [416]

Other than jealousy, what else can cause these plural wives displeasure consider they have never experienced anything else, a marriage that is not plural. In both narratives, these women inhabited in a world founded on fear, intimidation, and anti-reason, and in which men were compromised by conjugal indulgences. Interspersed with the two stories are letters, correspondence, research articles, and poem—literary forms that create disparate voices. These variations interplay with the two main narratives, which are drastically different from one another in style and atmosphere, and enforce a sense of mystery on both Ann Eliza’s life and Jordan’s investigation. These different perspectives make me as a reader question what the truth is? Is there a singular truth? Is there a factual truth?

Ebershoff has commented indirectly that historian writes a truth, a memorist writes a truth, and so does a novelist. Whether it was Ann Eliza Young, her uncle, her son, or Jordan’s mother, they have written not so much wrongful histories, or even competing histories, but all in their human way quite truthful, and that from all of them can be implied useful truths above and beyond the actual verity of the facts. For these unfathomable truths are as fluid as the definition of a wife under the reign of polygamy.

The 19th Wife is not only a history lesson on a past that Americans are ashamed of, the literary arrangement, which I didn’t immediately find appealing at first, manifest a story that is at once historically sensitive and mysterious. Reading the novel is like negotiating the truth, sifting through snippets of information.

514 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] Check out the complete book tour schedule at TLC Book Tours. David Ebershoff is the author of Pasadena, and The Danish Girl, and a short story collection, The Rose City. His fiction has won a number of awards, including the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Lambda Literary Award.

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14 Responses

  1. I’ve read a lot of great reviews about this book! You can be sure I will be adding this onto my wishlist!

  2. I read another great review of this book just yesterday and feel that it is one that I would enjoy. I have also read some good reviews for The Chosen One, which I think I might like to read in tandem with this.

  3. Great review, Matt! I still haven’t started the book yet but can’t wait.

  4. Thanks for putting this book on my radar. I would really love to read this now.

  5. I like how you focus on the writing style and the fashion with which Ebershoff has formatted the novel.I’m putting this one down for sure! Fabulous review, as usual!

  6. Great review! I loved the book. The church of latter day saints and all of its weird and eclectically bizarre ways is a bit of a pet interest of mine anyway so I found this fictional and historical account of the church fascinating. The present-day murder mystery helped to stop the history lesson from becoming too dry and uninteresting but I’m afraid I have to say the twee Hollywood ending was a little too much. But, honestly I found the historical detail in Ann Eliza’s story so absorbing.

  7. Excellent review! I always like it when form amplifies theme. . . sounds like it does so here.

  8. Very interesting review, also your pondering at to what truth actually is. I certainly continue to be bewildered by that eternally vexing conundrum. When I was a child I ran across Ann Eliza Young’s “Wife No. 19” in my grandmother’s book case. It had a rather elaborate 19th C. binding, so I peeked into it because it seemed an impressive and pretty object. I didn’t care much, at that tender age, for the contents, however. Now that the decades have toughened me some, I might like the 19th Wife.

  9. Great review, Matt! Very insightful. I thought it was great the author was so skilled at bringing history to life.

  10. Polygamy is a subject that I find extremely interesting and I enjoy reading books that share many different viewpoints. I really enjoyed your thoughts on this one!!

  11. Hey, Matt! Lisa told me you *may* be going to see David Ebershoff tonight. I don’t know where you are in the Bay Area, but if you are going to see him tonight, send me an email so I know to look for you!

  12. I really enjoyed this book, though I preferred Ann Eliza’s story over the present-day story.

    –Anna

  13. […] Wednesday, May 20th:  A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook […]

  14. […] of Spirits by Randall Kenan, Fixer Chao by Han Ong, The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler, The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff (a TLC book tour book), and Valeria’s Last Stand by Marc Fitten. The last […]

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