The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
Release date: August 5, 2008
David Ebershoff’s “The 19th Wife” appears at first to be a daunting novel, weighing in at close to 600 pages, including the author’s note in the beginning. I admit to cringing when I saw the size, sure that it would be awhile before I would get to any of my other books.
How happy I was to find out I was mistaken! This book was so enjoyable that I read it in little more than 48 hours, sneaking a page here or there whenever possible.
“The 19th Wife” is a multi-time period story dealing with the legacy of polygamy in Mormonism and Morman fundamentalism. The main characters are Jordan Scott – a young man kicked out at 14 years old of a polygamous community in Utah calling itself “First Latter Day Saints” for holding his stepsister’s hand – and Eliza Ann Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young turned moral crusader against polygamy. Like Eliza Ann, Jordan’s mother is also a 19th wife. Jordan is drawn back to Utah and back in contact with “The Firsts” when his mother is accused of murdering his father.
I have never read a book quite like this, historical fiction mixed with a present-day murder mystery. I imagine that in a lot of cases, such an attempt would fail miserably. With “The 19th Wife,” however, pulls it off brilliantly. Mixed in with the two stories, Ebershoff included “documents” such as Wikipedia articles and requests for permission to research in LDS Church archives, as well as letters or memoirs of other historical figures and a thesis paper. Instead of breaking up the action, this seems a clever way to impart to the reader information that neither first person narrator should have.
Although I was slightly disappointed at the way the murder mystery wrapped up in the present-day story thread, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I loved the concept, I was ecstatic that the author saw fit to include a “what’s true, what’s not true” note at the end of his book – why don’t more authors of historical fiction do this, by the way? – and I enjoyed both the story and the writing. I will be on the lookout for this Ebershoff’s previous and future works.