Book Review: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff. Book Cover

Faith, I tell them, is a mystery, elusive to many, and never easy to explain.

Sweeping and lyrical, spellbinding and unforgettable, David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife combines epic historical fiction with a modern murder mystery to create a brilliant novel of literary suspense. It is 1875, and Ann Eliza Young has recently separated from her powerful husband, Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon Church. Expelled and an outcast, Ann Eliza embarks on a crusade to end polygamy in the United States. A rich account of a family’s polygamous history is revealed, including how a young woman became a plural wife.

Soon after Ann Eliza’s story begins, a second exquisite narrative unfolds–a tale of murder involving a polygamist family in present-day Utah. Jordan Scott, a young man who was thrown out of his fundamentalist sect years earlier, must reenter the world that cast him aside in order to discover the truth behind his father’s death.

And as Ann Eliza’s narrative intertwines with that of Jordan’s search, readers are pulled deeper into the mysteries of love and faith.

This is a mixture of historical fiction with a modern mystery thriller with some parallels to the older story

I don’t know much (anything!) about LDS and “The Firsts” so I don’t know how much of the story is based in fact and how much is fiction.  I will presume that many liberties have been taken.

It starts with Jordan, a young gay man, who had been excommunicated from “the Firsts”, hearing that his mother has been charged with the murder of his father. Jordan’s mother is commonly referred to as “The 19th wife”. Jordan travels back to Measdale, whilst trying to work out if and how his mother did this.

The majority of the book tells the story of the beginning of the LDS and the breakaway sect of “The Firsts” – members of the LDS who believed that “celestial marriage” (pologamy) was the core of their faith as it was the only guaranteed way to get eternal glory in the afterlife.

Through letters, papers, books etc, the story of Bigham Young’s 19th Wife (Ann Eliza, and the struggles she has as being a multiple wife, which ultimately leads to her loss of faith, her divorce, her loss of income and her ultimate disappearance from history.  Meanwhile the story of Jordan and his mother does take a bit of a background story and hinges on a technicality.

I was removed from the overall story due to regularly thinking “how much is true?”, though I thought generally the book was good and entertaining. I’m not convinced that Jordan’s modern day story added much (quite honestly – too many step-siblings and sister aunts got confusing – but perhaps that’s the point!). Would I have gotten through the rest of the book without it though? Probably not!

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