Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Count on The 19th Wife for some thought provoking ,page turning drama
The title of David Eberhoff's new novel,The 19th Wife,refers to two women who share that place in the cluster of a prominent polygamist family but during very different periods of time in American history.
The first one is Ann Eliza Young,who was one of the wives of Brigham Young. Ann's family were early followers of Joseph Smith,the original founder of Mormonism,and after his death,accepted Brigham Young as the new leader of the Latter Day Saints. Young also introduced the concept of plural marriage as a tenet of LDS faith and strongly insisted on others to follow his lead while at the same time,publicly denying to outsiders that it existed in the church and telling other LDS members to do the same,especially to new converts.
Ann Eliza had no real desire to be part of a multiple marriage,particularly due to seeing the effects of such a life upon her mother, but after much pressure and persuasion placed on her and her family,she eventually joined Young's household.
The concept of plural marriage was sold to LDS members of that time as a mandatory requirement for salvation and as Young's title as the head of the church was the Prophet,to defy his word was considered as going directly against God. In that light,Ann Eliza's decision to divorce Brigham was more than just a bold statement.
In fact,it was only the beginning of her bravery. She wrote about her experiences in a memoir entitled The 19th Wife that was published in 1875. The book was the starting point for her to launch a campaign against polygamy.
As she toured the country,giving lectures and speaking out against Brigham Young,Ann Eliza faced a lot of criticism on all sides and was eventually estranged from her family,who had their own burdens of guilt regarding her marriage and doubts about the direction of the church under Young's leadership.
The other 19th wife in question is part of a modern day polygamist family living in an isolated fundamentalist LDS community in Mesadale,Ariz. and is under arrest for murdering her husband. Some of the key evidence against her is the last online conversation that he was having,in which he mentioned that his number nineteen spouse was knocking at his door just before he received a shotgun blast to the chest.
Jordan Scott,her son who was outcasted during his teens for holding hands with a girl(a flimsy excuse made to eliminate the number of young men as competition with the older men for the young women),hears about her arrest and goes back to visit her in prison. He's not exactly broken up about his father's death but after talking to his mother,finds it hard to believe that she's the one who killed him.
Knowing full well that the Mesadale police will gladly cover up the truth and discouraged by his mother's lawyer's insistence upon using the charges against her as part of a bigger campaign to shut down the fundamentalist's community(which he finds embarrassing and an insult to his more modern LDS faith),Jordan decides to do a little detective work and clear his mom's name on his own,with the help of many allies both within and outside the Mesadale mindset.
At times while reading this book,I was torn between wanting either more of the historical passages or more of the modern murder mystery sections. Both are compelling components of the novel but it's real strength lies in the depiction of the emotional toll that polygamy takes on families and the havoc that it reeks on the children caught in the middle of such a controversial lifestyle.
Ebershoff brings a humanizing touch to the characters,making their struggles to deal with the hand dealt to them as best as they can very moving and their search for some support and understanding of their plight from the outside world rather poignant as well:
Some might be tempted to see this book as a diatribe against the Mormon religion and while it does give a strong critical look at the beginnings of the LDS movement and the current brand of fundamentalism that the official church has rejected,I don't see it as anti-Mormon. Instead,it gives the reader more of an insight into why these folks feel and believe in the concept of plural marriage as they do and why there are people today who are attracted to this ideal,despite the abuses and hardships visited upon the women and children involved. As in all exclusionary societies,the lure of power over a select few is the ultimate driving force here:
So,if you're in the need for something to keep your brain alert during the dog days of summer and want to be entertainingly challenged,The 19th Wife should be your cool cup of iced tea. The book goes on sale today and is the perfect pick for getting into that back to school frame of mind. Or,if you prefer,The 19th Wife sets a buffet table of brilliance for folks to feast upon and save the leftovers as future food for thought.
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