The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

The 19th Wife

The subject matter of The 19th Wife is polygamy, and a murder case set in a polygamous community. But it’s one of those novels where if anything the structure is more noteworthy than the substance.

There are two completely different stories here, developed alternately. One is a fictionalized account of the life of the real historical figure Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young’s numerous wives, notable for the fact that she broke with the Mormon church, divorced Young, and made a career as an author and public speaker exposing the downside of polygamy.

The other is the murder mystery, told from the perspective of the son (Jordan) of both the murder victim (his father) and the accused murderer (his father’s nineteenth wife). These characters are, or were, all part of a tiny breakaway sect of Mormonism that retained polygamy and other fundamentalist practices.

Jordan has been kicked out of the sect for minor transgressions. But really what’s going on, the book makes clear, is that the male elders need to keep the proportion of females to males lopsided enough to ensure them all the wives they want, and so they regularly manipulate things to eliminate some of the younger males who would otherwise constitute unwelcome competition.

Though in Jordan’s case, he wouldn’t have been a competitive threat to them, because he’s gay. For that matter, because he’s gay they had, or would have eventually had, a lot more real transgressions to work with than the minor trumped up ones they used in most such cases.

It isn’t just its containing two different stories, from two different centuries, that makes the novel structurally unusual. There’s also the way the stories are told. Some of the book is in the form of conventional narrative like you would see in most novels, but then there are also numerous other types of material used. These include faux newspaper clippings, Wikipedia entries, excerpts from a history student’s dissertation, diary entries, memoir excerpts, and more.

In some ways I admire the creativity of the structure, and in some ways I found it distracting in the way it called too much attention to itself.

Though gimmicky, the inclusion of all the unconventional elements does seem for the most part to be well done. They’re well-researched enough and well-crafted enough to generally be quite plausible.

Probably the part of the book I found least well written and believable is the conventional narrative of the murder mystery. I’m not saying I was wincing at how poorly written it was or anything like that, but the characters in the Jordan story never fully came alive to me, the dialogue felt more fictional than real, and the solution to the mystery didn’t get much of a reaction from me.

What I found most interesting overall were the psychological and sociological ramifications of the practice of polygamy within this religious context.

Wrap it in all the lofty sounding spiritual trappings you want, but a core element remains the 15 year old boy fantasy of having as many sex partners as you want, and adding new ones whenever you tire of the current ones, while your female partners remain committed and faithful to you rather than having the same sexual freedom. You’d think women would never cooperate with such a scheme, but by presenting it in the guise of religion, these horny guys found a way to bamboozle enough people to turn the fantasy into reality.

But that’s not to say the guys with the multiple wives had the last laugh. Such was the disapproval of them by the wider society in nineteenth century America that they were constantly at risk of being imprisoned, harassed, driven from their homes, and brutalized up to and including mass murder.

So, the tradeoff is you get to have a harem of sex partners, but doing so increases your risk of being murdered or otherwise ill-treated.

There are a few things from this book that particularly struck me.

One of them involves the aforementioned Mormon suffering. The treacherous journey across much of the country to what was to become Utah is conveyed with chilling effectiveness. Some people some of the time had horses and oxen and such, but the bulk of the people the bulk of the time were on foot. Imagine walking almost the length of the United States—mountains and all—with whatever you could carry, in all weather, without the roads and other amenities taken for granted today.

I especially felt for the converts from other countries. A smattering of people from Europe, when they heard about Mormonism from missionaries, got caught up in the glorious project of building a utopian Christian community in the New World, and abandoned their lives to cross the ocean and join in. For the most part they had no expectation that what they were signing onto was this incredibly brutal journey. They had neither the experience nor the skills for such a life, making them rather pitiful pioneers. Nor for that matter did they really know what they were getting into as far as the tenets of the religion. The subject of polygamy itself was avoided if possible by missionaries seeking converts; otherwise the practice’s existence was dishonestly denied.

I also liked the way the geography of the modern day sect is described. Basically these Mormon purists have set up their own town for just themselves. No one else lives there, and because the only roads that go there end there, there’s rarely any reason for anyone else to even pass through. If somehow someone else does enter the town, local law enforcement is immediately aware of it and keeps a close eye on the outsider(s), while the townspeople avoid any interaction with the intruder(s) beyond the bare minimum necessary in an establishment open to the public such as a restaurant or Post Office.

There are definitely effective aspects of The 19th Wife, and it takes you to thought-provoking places. So I’d say it’s worthwhile, but it didn’t stand out to me enough to say I loved it, or would go out of my way to read more from the same author.

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