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The 19th Wife: A Novel Paperback – June 2, 2009
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The Valley (The Valley Trilogy)
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The story opens with 20-year-old Jordan Scott reading the news online. He sees a photo of a woman being placed into a police car and suddenly realizes that it's his mother! He hasn't seen her since she and his father left him by the side of the highway with $17 dollars in his pocket at the age of 14. You see, Jordan was raised in Utah in a polygamous Mormon sect--an extremist offshoot of the contemporary Mormon Church. Jordan's mom was #19 of his dad's 25 or so wives, and Jordan was raised with about 100 siblings. It's a very different upbringing. Sadly, at the age of 14, Jordan was excommunicated for a non-existent offence, and cast out from his home, family, and the life he'd known. But he's a survivor, and he's made a life for himself in LA.
Seeing that his mother has been arrested for the murder of his father, Jordan realizes that he must return home and face his past. He goes to visit his mother in jail, and she tells him, "I didn't do it!" and begs for his help. With all the conflicted feelings you would imagine, Jordan begins his own investigation into the murder case, and for the first time in years has contact with his former life. Despite the pain this sometimes brings him, he makes friends along the way, and they're a fascinating and diverse group of allies.
This contemporary murder mystery would be more than enough story for your average novel, but in this case, it's only half of it. For the chapters about Jordan and the murder mystery alternate with another story. It's the fictionalized memoir of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, one of the early founders of the Mormon Church. The very formation of the Church, right through its first several decades, are seen through Ann Eliza's eyes. She was a real historic character who did write a memoir about her life, marriage to the decades-older Young, eventual divorce, and crusade against polygamy in the Church.
Ebershoff has woven these two tales together magnificently. I can't claim to have known much about the Mormon faith, its history, or any current issues in the religion, but I was equally fascinated by both stories being told. I realize there's a limit to what a person can learn from a fictional work, but this novel appears to have been meticulously researched. (There's a great author's note at the end.) It's a hefty book, but well-written, compelling, exotic, and more than anything one hell of a story.
Ebershoff, author of "The Danish Girl," has composed an often brilliant novel consisting of two stories: the epic saga of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, who almost single handedly brought about the end of polygamy in America; and a story of a modern day plural wife accused of murder, and her excommunicated gay son determined to prove her innocence.
The story of Ann Eliza is a slice of nearly forgotten American history, thoroughly researched and detailed. "The 19th Wife" illustrates the evils of religious tyranny and how "celestial marriage" was a blasphemous rationalization of adultery. Great pains have been taken to depict the rise and fal of polygamy withing the Mormon church; from portraits of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, to testimonials from a wide assortment of Ann Eliza's friends, family and detractors. These characters are indelibly drawn and leap from the page into our memory. Scenes of the great western expansion and the trek of European immigrants to Utah remain vivid long after reading them.
I'll not provide a summary of the second story other than to say it too deals with the ill effects of polygamy, is set in a community not unlike Year for Zion Ranch, and features a truly memorable gay hero in Jordan Scott.
As good as this novel is I do have one caveat: while the historical material is never less than interesting, it plods along in comparison with the modern story, which, being a murder mystery is swiftly paced and instantly compelling. Ebershoff has failed to create an equal balance between the past and present stories. By swamping the reader with so much historical data in the first instance, he too frequently frustrates the momentum of the second; a classic cased where less would have been more. Still, "The 19th Wife" is an an impressive achievement and sure to make many year end "best" lists.