I'm acutely aware that I buy way more books each year than I can possibly read in the same time period. I bought this book at a library sale approximately two summers ago, (having recognized it among the piles as being on my ever-growing to-read list on Goodreads), but it was left to sit on my shelf until just last week, when I finally decided that the time had come to read it. It was one of those moments where I fell into the book instantly, and then kicked myself for not having read it sooner. David Ebershoff's The 19th Wife first peaked my interest after I read (and loved) this non fiction book, which shared the subject of modern Mormon Fundamentalists and their history in relation to the mainstream Mormon church. In this novel, which is part historical fiction, part contemporary fiction, Ebershoff tells the parallel stories of Ann Eliza Young and a young man named Jordan Scott.
Jordan grew up in a fundamentalist sect located in the desert of Utah but was ex-communicated as a teenager for the very serious crime of holding a girl's hand. Now, Jordan lives in California, working odd jobs and trying to piece his life together after having experienced a fractured youth in a polygamous household and the dual trauma of losing both his faith and his family. Jordan puts aside thoughts of the place that he's come from, until his mother is accused of murdering his father and Jordan is forced to return to his former home to defend his mother and investigate the murder himself. As he works to uncover the secrets of the elusive community, we learn about the history of the Mormon faith, the tumultuous road to polygamy, and its ultimate renouncement by church leader, all conveyed through the story of Ann Eliza Young. The 19th wife of Brigham Young, she was notable in her day for her very public divorce from her husband and her national campaign to end polygamy in the United States. Her story is told through the manuscript of her memoirs, as well as through letters written by her family members and newspaper clippings from the scandal of her divorce and her subsequent campaigns.
Because I had a relatively good store of background knowledge about the historical events in this book, I was able to dive into the story itself rather effortlessly. Jordan's character and his fractured identity reminded me of Theo Decker from Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. The imagery of a desolate plain with manipulative and neglectful adults brought about a lot of connections between the two books. This is one of those stories in which the characters are very....real. There's no sugar coating, there's a lot of tragedy, and it all comes together in an imperfect ending that's reflective of how complicated these situations can be. I enjoyed the mystery aspect (and was genuinely surprised by the reveal), but mostly I loved witnessing how the characters carefully reached out to each other, negotiating new relationships and mending the scars that were wrought by the corruption of their faith. This is one book that I'd recommend for those who enjoy that mix of contemporary and historical perspectives that come with novels of dual storylines. It's a story that tugs at heartstrings and encourages gratitude in equal measure.
Bottom-Line Rating: 4/5
Title: The 19th Wife
Author: David Ebershoff
Publisher: Random House, 2008
Price: Less than $6 from Better World Books!
Source: Personal Library