Monday, July 20, 2009

The 19th Wife - Book 62

The 19th Wife
David Ebershoff

I have a split decision on this book, and that is only because of personal knowledge of the author’s topic. The book tells two stories separated by time, but overlapping in purpose. That is the negatives of polygamy.
Story one is a mystery story that involves a gay lost boy who sees that his estranged mother is being held in the murder of his father. A lost boy is a term applied to a group of young men (approx. ages 12-16) from modern polygamist compounds who any variety of reasons are excommunicated from the society and unceremoniously dump on the side of the highway and told never to come back. Upon learning that his mom is in prison awaiting trial he travels back to Utah to talk with her one more time. Evidence aside she maintains her innocence and recruits her son to find the truth. She is the 19th wife of this modern polygamist.

The second story involves the original and more infamous 19th wife, namely Brigham Young’s wife Anna Eliza. Anna Eliza is well known for her marriage to BY and their subsequent divorce. While not alone in divorcing BY, she did make it her life’s mission to preach the evils of polygamy throughout the nation and can be credited to some extent for the anti-polygamy laws the US passed.

I will be the first to admit that polygamy as practiced today is seriously wrong – it seems like the object is to marry as many underage girls as possible. I also think the original aims of polygamy were quickly degenerated in the early Mormon church, BY included, and was a failure (natural man and all). Mr. Ebershoff takes a lot of facts (i.e. documented events) and then strings them together with fictional narrative. Nothing in his writing seems particularly malicious and yet it is easy to have a very negative view of ALL polygamy which is a little unfair.

The other distracting storyline was the homosexuality of the lead character. Given the current struggles between Mormon behaviors and proposition 8, it adds a layer of confusion to the book that didn’t need to be there, or better yet should have been a book in its own right. Finally, the modern murder mystery was too sparse and wrapped up a little to conveniently. I am somewhat spoiled as mysteries tend to be my genre of choice so I was expecting a bit more depth.

All that said, this was a fantastic book. I read all 500 pages in little over a day and had a hard time putting it down. My misgivings about some of the details are far outweighed by Mr. Ebershoff’s writing style and voice. I recommend this to anyone looking for fiction concerning Polygamy and its negative effects.

Mormon Mentions: Nothing else besides Mormon mentions. The one flaw would be to the structure of the book. If you are not familiar with early Mormonism, polygamy, the subsequent splinter group which led to modern polygamists, then it would be very easy to get confused about what practice and belief belongs where. I do not feel that Mr. Ebershoff deliberately tries to mislead his readers about the subject with maliciaous intent (say like Krakuer’s Under the Banner of Heaven). His references seem to be sound resources, but as I said it is very hard to show polygamy in a positive light due to what it has become today. That isn’t his fault.

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