The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

This is something of a departure from most of the books I have been reading lately, but I recently started watching all of Big Love and the entire idea of polygamist families is so bizarrely fascinating that I had to buy this book when I saw it.

Ebershoff has two stories going. The “A” story is about Jordan Scott who was kicked off the polygamist compound where he grew up because he was caught holding his half-sister’s hand. (Ironically enough, it was not for being gay, which is a much bigger insult.) He has put his life as a First Latter Day Saint behind him until he finds out that his mother has been arrested for the murder of his father. He returns home to try proving her innocence and finds himself sucked back into the politics and chaos that he had thought he was done with forever. The “B” story is the life of the Prophet (spiritual leader for the community) Brigham Young’s 19th wife (19 in the loosest definition of the word), Ann Eliza, and how she became an outspoken anti-polygamist in the 19th century.

For me, it felt like the two stories, though technically related (Jordan meets the person researching Ann Eliza’s life, this is the past of the place he grew up in, etc), feel disjointed. In fact, Ann Eliza’s story almost feels like an unnecessary, redundant story. Sure, her experiences are extremely different from Jordan’s but both serve the same purpose of giving an insight into life on the compound. I would have preferred sticking to Jordan’s story which is a bit more active and unique than reading about Ann Eliza’s which often felt drawn out and slow.

Jordan’s story is told in the first person and even though there were times when I would have like to get inside his head more (which is usually the opposite problem I have in a first person narrative), it felt like we really got to know him and were able to connect to his story. Ann Eliza’s story, on the other hand, was told through various documents, letters, books, articles, etc. It often felt too passive and reflective and I found it difficult to connect to most parts of her story and most of the people involved. (For example, we get a couple letters from her son where he goes off on tangents about dolphins and the weather and while I understand that this shows us what kind of person he was, it just felt like a waste of time).

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book because the “A” story was compelling and surprising. There were so many unexpected twists and turns and the truth is, we rarely get the polygamy perspective from the boy’s side. It is usually the women/wives whose stories are told (admittedly their stories are often more horrific). The “B” story was a distraction with a few interesting facts thrown in. I could have done without, but am content to read it for the sake of the rest. I’m not running out to buy another Ebershoff book any time soon, but I have no regrets about reading this one.

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