Writer David Ebershoff's novel, "The 19th Wife," is two stories: one based on the life of Ann Eliza Young, one of Mormon leader Brigham Young's 19 wives who divorced him and became a crusader against polygamy. The second, a modern murder mystery, parallels the first, but it's Ann Eliza's epic story that will rivet readers.
“The 19th Wife”
by David Ebershoff
Random House, 587 pp., $26
Writer David Ebershoff clearly has a fascination with people who live outside society’s norms. His debut novel, “The Danish Girl,” re-imagined the life of Danish painter Einar Wegener, the first man to undergo surgical gender change. In “The 19th Wife,” his third and latest novel, Ebershoff weaves together various narratives from different centuries to explore the demoralizing effects of polygamy on human lives.
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Ebershoff develops two alternating stories, one of them based on historical fact.
In January of 1873, Ann Eliza Young, by her account the 19th wife of Brigham Young, spiritual leader of the Mormon church, filed for divorce from Young, charging him with neglect and desertion.
In January 1875, the divorce was finalized, and Brigham Young was ordered by the U.S. government to pay Ann $500 per month in alimony. Young refused, arguing, as he had for two years, that under federal law Ann had never been his wife. Young was held in contempt of court and sent to jail for one day.
He relented. Ann Eliza Young subsequently wrote a popular memoir called “Wife No. 19” (with an introduction by Harriet Beecher Stowe). This is the primary document that Ebershoff has refashioned into fiction.
During her legal fight with her famous husband, Ann Eliza went on the lecture circuit, speaking out against Mormonism, plural marriage and Brigham Young. Disappearing from public view in the first decade of the new century, and subsequently living in obscurity, she remains, to this day, a controversial figure in Mormon history.
Although Ann’s fate is unclear, her efforts to combat polygamy were successful. In September of 1890, tired of battling the U.S. government, the Mormon church officially renounced polygamy.
Immediately, hard-core proponents of celestial marriage raised opposition to the decision. Calling themselves the First and True Latter Day Saints, they broke from the Mormon church.
Set in Utah in and around a conclave of this fundamentalist sect, Ebershoff’s second narrative is a modern murder mystery. Jordon Scott, a 20-year-old former member of the Firsts, has returned to his home turf to visit his mother, BeckyLyn, who has been charged with the murder of Jordon’s father.
BeckyLyn is also a Wife No. 19.
When Ebershoff stays in the 19th century, his writing is confident, poised, well-informed and subtle. His recounting of the early life of Ann Eliza’s mother and father, the character of Joseph Smith (the founder of the religion) and the Mormon migration westward has all the sweep of a truly epic story told in an intimate way.
Likewise, Ebershoff’s exploration of polygamy is grounded in period detail — the daily humiliations and petty rivalries brought on by sexual politics. What emerges is a Catch-22 for Mormon wives: Multiple marriage has been ordained by God. Multiple marriage is demeaning to women. To renounce polygamy means defiance of God and being denied a place in Heaven.
Speaking with a reporter after she left the Mormon church, Ann Eliza explains how she consented to such an arrangement:
“You must remember, I was born into this system. It was all I knew. I did not know a Gentile until I was an adult woman. I had been told the world beyond Deseret was Babylon and Sodom combined. I had been raised to believe Brigham delivered messages from God. And above all, I was told this was my spiritual duty, and that if I wanted to enter Heaven — and who among us, Miss Lee, does not? — then I would need to submit to Brigham’s command and become a plural wife.”
Regrettably, Jordon’s contemporary story offers little of the spiritual complexity of Ann Eliza’s saga. As a mystery it is totally without suspense, and the characters, other than Jordon (who has a healthy sense of the absurd), are not well-developed or compelling.
Sometimes, one good story is all you need.