The 19th Wife
By: David Ebershoff
Publisher: Random House
Reason for Reading: March Bookclub, also it has been on TBR list since it was published.
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.
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.
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.