Review: The 19th Wife

the 19th WifeThe 19th Wife

By: David Ebershoff

Publisher: Random House

Pages: 554

Copyright: 2009

Format: Fiction

Reason for Reading: March Bookclub, also it has been on TBR list since it was published.

Rating: A

The Book:

Jordan Scott grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon community. He was kicked out as a young boy. He has been on his own ever since. Now in his early twenties, he discovers that his mom has been arrested for the murder of his father. He returns to the community to clear his mother’s name.

Ann Eliza is part of the community of early settlers of the Mormon Church.  Her dad is a polygamist with five wives. As a young adult she becomes the nineteenth wife of Brigham Young-the man who succeeded Joseph Smith as prophet. She is intensely unhappy in her plural marriage. She eventually seeks a divorce and makes it her mission to end plural marriage once and for all.

These two narratives rest beside each other comprising the novel of The 19th Wife. I found the narrative of Ann Eliza helpful in understanding the context of the modern narrative. Ebershoff’s research was very thorough, which only enhanced the story.

I had been wanting to read this since the book was first published. Admittedly, I know very little of the LDS faith, despite having a Mormon aunt and a couple of LDS friends.  It would seem the polygamy of the early church is the most well known aspect and the most confusing.  I really appreciated this book for its research and illumination of a very mysterious faith. It definitely sheds light on the fundamentalist sects we know today, how they came to be, and the evolution of the Mormon Church itself.

I found this book not only to be an examination of the nature of plural marriage and its effects on the women inside of it but also the subjectivity of history itself. Ebershoff shares the experience of what it is like to dig deep in research to tease out the story you are seeking. He includes in his narratives ‘documents,’ correspondence between a historian and members of Young’s family, and a grad student’s research paper, among other research items. This confused me at first, but I learned that these documents weren’t real; however, they were modeled after documents he came across in his research for the novel.

“Even so, history has one flaw. It is a subjective art, no less so than poetry or music. The true historian has two sources: the written record and the witness’s testimony. This is as it should be. Yet one is memory and the other is written, quite often, from memory. There is nothing to be done about this defect except acknowledge it for what it is. Yet this is your field’s Achilles’ heel. You say in your letter the historian writes the truth. Forgive me, I must disagree. The historian writes a truth. The memoirist writes a truth. The novelist writes a truth.

The Movie:

Serendipitously, the Lifetime moview was playing the Saturday before book club. I was excited to watch it because of the cast, which included Chyler Leigh and Matt Czuchry. Well, I was quite disappointed by it. Not only did they change Jordan’s sexuality, but they really altered the character of Queenie. Her characterization just didn’t ring true to what I understood of the book. In the book, she was friendly with Jordan but she maintained her distance. Jordan was not allowed to come and go as he pleased in the community. However, movie Queenie was overly familiar with Jordan, flaunting her association with him and his presence in the community was somewhat tolerated. This felt very disingenuous. Overall, I felt like the movie was disrespectful of its source material. Instead of bringing this wonderful book to life it veered into sensationalism.

Book Club:

Given the material it should have not surprised me that the discussion veered more towards the Mormon faith and not so much the book itself.  The woman leading the discussion converted at age 14. She was a devout member for thirty years, but is no longer a member. Another bookclubber grew up in the church. Her family ancestry dates back to the times of Joseph Smith. She also is no longer a member. Between the two of them, they had a lot to say about the book, how it portrayed the faith, and their insights into the Mormon faith itself. I found it interesting that everyone else who read the book appreciated the dual narrative; however, the former LDS members found those parts boring. I was fascinated by the knowledge of the woman who grew up in the church. I felt like she really had a lot to add to the discussion. By the end of the night, I felt like I had just had a crash course on Mormonism.

In sum, the book is engaging, well-written, and garnered a lot of discussion. Read the book, skip the movie.

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14 Responses to Review: The 19th Wife

  1. Margot says:

    The book has been on my radar for a while too. I’m glad to hear it is worth reading. I’m curious about how the author handled the “faith” issue. I know that being Mormon is about a lot more than the heritage of polygamy. I feel bad that some people look at Mormons and all they can think of is polygamy because Mormons do have a rich spiritual heritage. Does that figure into the book at all?

    • jehara says:

      I think that is what is so valuable about the Ann Eliza narrative because it allows the author to delve into the history of the Mormon faith. Her narrative actually starts with her mother who was one of Joseph’s early converts. You get to see their journey across the country and how they ended up in Salt Lake. Although, polygamy is a big part of the story, I think the author was very respectful and allows you to see how polygamy figured into the religion and how it caused the divide between what is today’s mainstream Mormon Church and the fundamentalists.

      I look forward to Faith weighing in later. She has read the book and loved it. And she can give an LDS perspective. 🙂

  2. Heather says:

    I haven’t read this one but it has been on my list…well, the original 19th wife has been on my list by Eliza Ann Young. Great review.

  3. Kay says:

    I read this book in 2008 and then skimmed it for my book group early last year. I liked it a lot and our group had a good discussion about it. I summarized our meeting here

  4. Jehara, you can get Ann Eliza’s book online for free.

    I found the book to be respectful yet honest in the depictions of the early days of the church in Utah.

    I’m happy to answer any questions anyone might have, although I’d be more comfortable doing it off the blog. Feel free to email me at chauceriangirl(at)gmail(dot)com.

  5. Staci says:

    This is a book that I want to read for sure. I have the movie on DVR just waiting for me to watch it too.

  6. Hi Jehara,

    Many thanks for your thoughtful review about T19W. And thanks to everyone for your comments about the book.

    Cheers,

    David Ebershoff

  7. Amy says:

    I have this book on my shelf and want to read but for some reason I forget when I need a new book! After reading your great review, I took it off my shelf and put it on my nightstand stack… I’ve always been fascinated by polygamy and LDS, of which I know very little. I read many great review of this book and your review reminds me why it’s received such raves. It sounds like Ebershoff put a lot of work into this book and approached the story from a brilliant angle giving him the chance to explain LDS and its beliefs. I’m looking forward to reading The 19th Wife.

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