Title: the 19th Wife
by: David Ebershoff
release date: 8/5/08
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff came to me through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. After my first experience with the program, I was a little hesitant, but what with Mormonism so much in the news these days, I’ve been trying to find out as much about the religion as I can.
This isn’t Ebershoff’s first book, he’s written three before this, two novels and a collection of short stories. He’s won awards for his work, and is a graduate writing professor at Columbia University. However, I found this all out after reading the book, and after seeing on the back cover that he is an editor-at-large at Random House. This was nestled into all the other stuff about being a professor and getting awards, and it honestly made me a little uncomfortable, especially after seeing how much promotion the book was getting. Was this 579 page brick really that good? Or was Random House just making a huge deal because someone that worked for the company wrote it?
In short, my discomfort was misplaced. This 579 page brick was more than worth reading. It was one of the better novels I’ve read in a while. The book has two plots. One, set in modern day (no specific year is ever given that I remember, but I imagined it as the early years of the 21st century) BeckyLyn Scott, a member of the Firsts, a fundamentalist Polygamous sect of the LDS church, is arrested for the murder of her husband. Her son Jordan, a gay lost boy who was kicked out at 14 for holding a girl’s hand, reads about the murder, and sets out to find the truth. The other is set in the mid-1800’s and chronicles the life of Ann Eliza Young, 19th wife of Brigham Young, starting with her mother’s meeting with Joseph Smith, the first Prophet of the LDS church, leading up to her marriage to and eventual divorce from Brigham Young, followed by her work to end Polygamy. You find all this out in the first 50 pages or so, so don’t worry; I haven’t just ruined the end of the book for you.
What’s interesting about the historical plotline is how it’s told. Ebershoff uses a fictional autobiography of Ann Eliza, based on her actual autobiography, and numerous fictional documents, from a master’s thesis, to letters and journals of historical figures, even a Wikipedia article, to tell the story of the early Mormons, and Ann Eliza’s life. Ebershoff uses all these to masterfully interweave fiction with fact, to the point where you aren’t sure what’s been fabricated and what actually happened.
Jorsdan is extremely well crafted in my opinion. This is not your stereotypical fashion designer with a lisp gay dude. We see him argue with his mom when he visits her in prison, and he is constantly conflicted about whether he should stay, or go back to California where he’s managed to get an on again off again job as a contract carpenter. He openly admits to living out of a van for the past couple years, and his fear of the outside world upon leaving the Firsts. The Prophet, as the leader of the Firsts is called, is a true cult leader in every sense of the term. He has everyone terrified of the outside world. At one point Jordan tells a story of how the Prophet told of a world war that wiped Europe off the face of the Earth, so you can imagine Jordan’s surprise when he meets a Frenchman in Las Vegas, only to find out that France is very much still around and prospering.
In the end, you are brought so completely into the worlds of both Ann Eliza Young, and Jordan Scott, that they could easily survive and be enjoyable as two separate books. Yet how they come together to form a more complete picture of how people’s actions can effect others, even across vast spans of time, make this a truly engaging book. To explain, I'd have to ruin the ending, which I'll refrain from, but I will say that the book is probably the quickest 600 pages I've read in a long time. It comes out on 8/5/08, and I highly recommend it.