Although the Mormon church officially gave up polygamy in 1890, the practice is still associated with it, sometimes through contemporary fundamentalist groups or historically. David Ebershoff takes on both a historic and a contemporary story in The 19th Wife. The first story is a fictionalization of the life of Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young’s wives, who divorced him, and later wrote a book called Wife Number 19, became a public speaker and advocate against polygamy. The second story belongs to Jordan Scott, excommunicated from his fundamentalist community of Mesadale at the age of 15 and literally left at the side of the road. He comes back to Utah after learning that his mother is accused of murdering his polygamist father. She too was wife number 19.
Ann Eliza Young’s story begins with her parents’ conversion to Mormonism, both of whom become followers of Joseph Smith the founder of the Church of Later Day Saints. After Smith’s murder, the family follows Brigham Young to Utah. Her father initially resists the Prophet’s to take on additional wives, but succumbs. Ann Eliza’s story reveals her mother’s humiliation as her husband spreads his affection first to a second wife, and then another. She portrays Brigham Young as a manipulative leader, pressuring men to take on more wives, and harming her family economically to pressure her to marry him. Brigham Young’s home does not come across as a happy sorority of sister wives, but rather an oppressed and grim household.
Ann Eliza’s narrative gets a bit tiresome about two-thirds of the way through the book as her story is rather long winded. She isn’t easy to like, she tells her story defensively, and meanders a bit here and there. Thus it was refreshing to leave her story at times and get back to the contemporary mystery. The link between the two stories was clearly the hardship that polygamy brings on everyone except perhaps the “old lions” of such communities. Obedience is required and the communities police themselves often brutally. Ebershoff suggests that the Mormon church has never resolved its polygamy problem. It disowns the modern polygamists, but cannot avoid its own history. The church founders Smith and Young promoted polygamy as the word of God.Even then many of their followers resisted, but Young insisted that their salvation depended on the practice. The fact that the church later did a 180°turn looks like political expediency rather than divine direction.
The weaving of these two narratives together is an interesting construction. It really is like picking up and reading two different books at the same time.