The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff has two of my favorite things: historical fiction (yay!) and polygamy (wheee!)
I love me some Sister Wives on TLC and was also a fan of Big Love. But even before these shows I was interested in polygamy when Jerry told me one of his relatives is believed to have left his family to help found a polygamous community on the boarder of Utah and Arizona, Colorado City.
Jerry and I have driven through Colorado City. Just like on TV, the women wear long cotton skirts and I swear a pickup truck followed us. It was a creepy place. When Jerry stopped at outside the general store and suggested we look around I refused to get out of the car. I was brave enough to visit the graveyard though. Sure enough, there are a lot of Jessops who live and lived in the town.
Parts of The 19th Wife is in fact based on Colorado City. The book is actually two stories that alternate. One is the story of a modern polygamous family and the other is the fictitious story of Ann Eliza Webb, Brigham Young’s 19th wife.
In fact, Brigham Young, second president of the Latter Day Saints, did have several wives including Ann Eliza Webb who divorced him and later became a critic of polygamy. Ann Eliza’s story as told by Ebershoff is an interesting one as she was part of the first generation born into the Mormon church. The story, told through fictitious memoirs and college papers, focuses on the incredible faith Ann Eliza and her contemporaries had in their church and its leader. I like to think that the portrayal of Brigham Young as a charismatic leader with a gift for logistics and organization is accurate. Once he begins to promote plural marriage, of course, the reader’s perception of his character begins to sour, as does Ann Eliza’s. I have no idea how accurate the story of how Ann Eliza becomes Brigham Young’s wife is. It borders on the level of an HBO TV series which of course makes the story interesting.
The modern day portion of the story is a murder mystery. Jordan Scott, a young gay man who was banished from the town when he was a adolescent, returns when he finds out his mother, BeckyLynn, is accused of killing his father. Like Ann Eliza, BeckyLynn is also the 19th wife. As Jordan helps investigate his mother’s case he comes to terms with his relationship to the church and with the people he has in his life. As readers, we get the added bonus of learning what it’s like to grow up in a modern day polygamous/FLDS community.
The ending of both stories are satisfying with Ebershoff cleverly tying them together. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in a solid, compelling read. If you are interested in the history of polygamy or the Mormon church, even better!