on August 8, 2008
When I heard what this novel was about, I immediately wanted to read it. The reason is that I've been so intrigued by news accounts of groups like the polygamous fundamentalists featured in this novel. For me, it was like a window into another world.
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.
on August 20, 2008
Last April, 533 women and children were removed from the Yearn for Zion Ranch of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints in west Texas. Author David Ebershoff must have found this an eerie coincidence with his polygamy rich novel "The 19th Wife" being prepped by Random House for an August release.
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.
on August 12, 2008
In 1875 Ann Eliza Young, the purported wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young, published her memoirs. A year earlier she had left her husband, filed for divorce, fled Utah and had embarked on a nationwide lecture tour fiercely denouncing the evils of polygamy.
Present day California, Jordan Scott, is a 20 year old "lost boy" expelled from the polygamous First Latter Day Saints community of Mesadale, Utah, by the Prophet. Browsing the St. George Register online he is stunned to see his mother on the front page accused on murdering his father, a prominent First. An open chat page on the dead man's computer identifies his murderer, his 19th wife....Jordan's mother.
It took a few false starts before I got into the rhythm of The 19th Wife. Moving from Anne Eliza's life story and history of the westward migration of the Mormons, to present day Utah where Jordan struggles to understand what might have happened, the storyline moves back and forth slowly drawing the reader into the story. Jordan must return to Mesadale and try to uncover the truth of his father's murder and possibly free his mother from jail. Anne Eliza chronicles her family's conversion to Mormonism, their westward migration, the persecution of the sect and their expulsion into the inhospitable west. Jordan has to return to Mesadale where he is unsure who, if anyone can be trusted and where he is watched and shunned at every turn.
As Jordan moves closer to the truth his path intersects with Ann Eliza's story and his life is also in danger. Help from an unexpected source offers him safety, but can it be trusted? David Ebershoff has crafted a masterful, though somewhat twisted tale of family life. Through extensive research he is able to portray the inner workings of a closed society and the corruption of power. This kept me engrossed from beginning to the much unexpected end.
on December 29, 2008
This was an interesting book. It flipped between both a present day murder mystery, ostensibly committed by a FLDS wife, and a historical novel about the practice of polygamy in the early LDS church (and how and where the modern day Church and the "Firsts" diverged on the issue). While I appreciate the different feel that the author tried to create with his novel (modern and historical and the social contexts that still exist), it just didn't quite work for me. It really should have been one or the other, but there wasn't quite enough good material to make it a great novel if it HAD just stuck to one storyline. I get that they were to be intertwined, but it felt a bit forced to me. I enjoyed the historical context, although I'm always wary of how much is fictionalized. Good, but not great, and for the length, I'm not sure it was worth the time.
on August 14, 2008
If you, like I, love a fabulous mystery, history, poetic-like writing and an intriguing subject, you must read the 19th Wife. I could not put the book down and finished it in two days. The author has an uncanny ability to delve into characters souls and psychologies and to enable readers to find parts of himself or herself in subliminal ways. Ebershoff seamlessly switches between past and present and I felt as if I were living in a period (the advent of Mormonism and the incredible courage and resilience of the early Mormons) that I had no clue about. Do yourself a favor and pick up this book. I think it is a perfect literary jewel.
on November 3, 2008
As a teenager, I learned about the Mormons from the Sherlock Holmes book THE SIGN OF THE FOUR. Since then, I've read about them but nowhere have I seen so compelling and absorbing a history as what David Ebershoff has written. He has taken two very dramatic situations, more than 100 years apart, and used his characters to provide insights into the religion, the circumstances of the U.S. in the 1800s and recent times, and the role of women in the different centuries. Unlike some reviewers, I wasn't bothered by the back and forth between the time periods but found that this technique added depth and interest.
Several reviewers mentioned Jon Krakauer's UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN for a modern take on the "Firsts" = i.e., those Mormons who still believe in plural wives. That was an excellent book but this one makes a great companion piece.
By serendipity, the book was published at almost the same time that the U.S. government raided the camp/cult of polygamists in Texas. THE 19th WIFE clarifies alot of the issues raised in that raid - the lack of identities for the children, the "marriages" of minors, the paranoia of the residents of the settlement, the role of Warren Jeffs as "prophet" and even the style of dress and hair.
The book is long so be prepared to settle in but it is worth the time. An outstanding read!
on August 27, 2008
I really enjoyed this book. I had trouble putting it down. Mr Ebershoff weaved 2 tales a hundred years apart, yet related. One based on the real life story of Anne Eliza Webb, wife # 19 of Brigham Young (one of the first leaders in the Mormon church) and a fictional story of a modern day cult of polygamists. The book switches back and forth between the 2 stories. Seemingly the 2 stories are related only by the fact that the 2 woman at the heart of the stories are both ranked 19th with their husbands, but the author lays clues thoughout the book that connects the stories futher.
I guess real life is more interesting then fiction because the story of Anna Eliza is definalty better then the modern day murder mystery of the second story.
I've always been curious about the mormon faith and it's current reputation. My interest in this book was peaked when I saw that it was about polygamy and it didn't disappoint. Understandably, the story doesn't paint a nice picture of polygamy, however the author did a magnificent job of including several points of view, including those of the men who practice it.
This book was so well written, it answered my own disbelief about the reality of someone that would practice polygamy, and satisfied my interest in Mormonism's history.
Wow, I will definatly read this book again soon.
This was one of those books I couldn't wait to be done with, as I had to read it for my book club. The writing is just okay, nothing overly literary, and at times the narrative is so cliche, or at least doesn't feel real, like the author is stretching a limited imagination. It tells two stories in two separate narratives that the author is trying to somehow relate to one another.
One is a historical fiction about Brigham Young's 19th wife, who divorces him and sets about on a crusade to end polygamy in the late-19th Century. That part of the book I really liked. It's fairly well researched and feels authentic. The other is a modern sort of murder mystery about a 19th wife in a cult-like sect that split of from the Mormons after 1890 who is accused of killing her husband. Her estranged gay son returns to the small town and proceeds to investigate the case, and I don't want to ruin it for you, but the author would like us to believe that the mother's innocent, and her son, the hero is trying to prove it.
But I had some real problems with that part of the book. First of all, the solving of the murder comes abruptly and totally from left field. There's no building of the clues, only a bit of meandering around them. The explanation of the murder is less than a page, and the motive isn't fully believable, especially given that the climax is the first we've heard of it. Also, the confession comes after a totally contrived scene where the main character is captured and seems to be threatened, but again, it doesn't feel as real as the author had been hoping to make it.
My biggest problem was with the main character, Jordan, who as I mentioned, is gay. Why? Because I guess that would make the story more interesting? The author tells us that Jordan spent a little time selling his bod, and on more than one occasion mentions that he was paid by a dude to let him put his "arm in a place where no arm should go." Ew. Ultimately though, I didn't get the feeling that the author knew thing one about being homosexual, that he was basically working with stock stereotypes, and overusing them at that.
And then, about 2/3 through the book, Jordan meets a guy, Tom, who falls in love with Jordan and wants him to stay, make a commitment after ONE NIGHT TOGETHER,. The author tries to kind of make a case that it's hard for Jordan to do that because of how he was raised in the polygamist sect. He can't love, you see. But I felt like -- well, he did just meet the guy. Frankly, the love interest comes off more like a creepy stalker than a sincere life partner. (I pictured him as Kenneth Parcells from 30 Rock, only you know, as a creepy stalker. If they ever make a movie of this book, Jack McBrayer should totally play the character of Tom.)
But I kept turning those pages, because I wanted to find out what happened to Ann Eliza Young, Bringham's 19th wife. Sadly, I was disappointed in that there was no resolution, nor was there any more mention of the son she had left behind but lamented over on several occasions.
The worst part of the book was the last paragraph, where Jordan, Tom, their precocious ward, and even their dogs are sitting on a bed contemplating the future. One man puts his arm around the other, and Jordan imagines his mother where he had left her, and again, I don't want to ruin it for you, but the writing here was particularly cheesey. I could almost here a swell of violins in the background.
on July 31, 2009
In my own little mind I've always conceptualized Mormonism as the love child of the Pope and Ron L. Hubbard. You have these devoutly Christian followers with some pretty Sci-Fi beliefs. Throw in the polygamy factor and I am perversely fascinated. It's no surprise, then, that I was instantly drawn to The 19th Wife.
Here we have dual story lines: The trials and tribulations of Brigham Young's infamous 19th Wife, Ann Eliza, partnered with the trials and tribulations of a 19th wife from a modern day polygamous cult accused of murdering her "husband". For all the research the author did in preparation for this novel (and it is obvious he did his homework) and with all the intrigue that currently surrounds these polygamist sects, the book truly fell short of the glory it could have been.
Whereas the modern-day plot completely captivated me (Warren Jeffs meets Murder She Wrote) the fictitious excerpts from Ann Eliza's book, The 19th Wife, just blatantly dragged. One does get an education about the origins of Mormonism, the exodus of the Mormons to Salt Lake City, and the "philosophy" behind polygamy, but there is so much added fluff that the focus of the whole story gets bogged down. By the time the murderer in the modern day plot was revealed, I was so eager for the book to be over, I didn't even care.
Overall this was a good book, but it could have been soooo much better.
Jordan Scott's mother has been accused of killing his father. It could be any murder mystery - until we learn that Jordan's mother was his father's 19th wife in a small polygamist cult in Mesadale, Utah. Jordan was kicked out of the cult at the tender age of 14, left alone on the side of a highway for virtually no reason. By the time this novel starts, Jordan has established himself and developed an identity, but that identity isn't strong enough to keep him from trying to save his mother once she convinces him that she didn't do it - despite all the evidence against her. Paralleled with Jordan's story is that of the original Mormon colony, more specifically the background and life of Brigham Young's 19th wife, Ann Eliza. She divorced him and took her story on the national circuit, making strides in the battle to force the early Mormons to renounce polygamy all together. Of course, they didn't complete the job, because Jordan's family is derived from the sect that broke off after the official renunciation.
This story is told through many forms of media - in addition to an ordinary narrative in both storylines, there are also excerpts from newspapers, journals, letters, and even a master's thesis. All of these are fictional, of course, but they add a feeling of authenticity since some of these could have existed in similar ways, and it's certainly not unimaginable that a member of the current LDS church would choose to research Ann Eliza.
Both stories are extremely compelling and I love the way that they related to each other. Ebershoff thought the story through on many levels. I suspect it would be difficult to find a non-fiction work that could better expose the evils of polygamy. In addition, I could relate to all the characters and I loved how Jordan picked up several endearing sidekicks along the way. They added flavor and emotional attachment to the story, fleshing out Jordan's character as we witnessed his relations with them. I was drawn in by Ann Eliza's narrative, too, so it's clear that the author can do a very good job with historical fiction in addition to his mystery storyline. I did, however, feel a bit disappointed by the mystery's ending. It wraps up too quickly and a bit too neatly, in my opinion.
This is a very enjoyable book and I'd recommend it to fans of mystery and historical fiction.