The 19th Wife

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Read 16/10/2017-30/10/2017

Rating: 4 stars

Onward in my tour of US authors by state, and to Utah. All that I know about Utah is it has a Salt Lake and is the home state of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. All that I know about the Latter Day Saints, or Mormons, is gleaned from being an archivist and having watched a couple of episodes of Big Love once. My archive-derived knowledge comes from familiarity with the International Genealogical Index, a useful tool for family history research originally compiled by the Mormons to track what they term ‘saving ordinances on behalf of the dead’, the premise being that current Mormons can baptise deceased ancestors into the faith if they believe the dead person would have joined the church in life, given the opportunity. Big Love focused on the polygamy side of the Mormon religion, showing the tensions in being one of multiple wives and being a polygamous husband with a large family and multiple properties.

David Ebershoff’s novel The 19th Wife takes its starting point from Ann Eliza Young’s publication Wife No. 19, or the story of a life in bondage. Ann Eliza was the nineteenth of Brigham Young’s fifty-five wives. By the time she published her book in 1875, she’d had enough of polygamy and set off on a tour of the USA denouncing the Mormon way of life. Ebershoff presents a version of Wife No. 19 alongside other Mormon tracts, allegedly from the official LDS archive. In the book’s acknowledgements, Ebershoff makes clear that his version of Ann Eliza’s story is based on her writings with additions where he felt he needed to flesh out a few things. The other documents that appear in the book, Ebershoff describes as

… fictional representations of what it’s like to spend time in the archives and online researching Ann Eliza Young, Brigham, and early LDS history. Many are inspired by an actual text …

I needed to know this early on in order to settle into the book and accept it as fiction based in fact, as far as the facts are known and can be relied on. It’s the historian in me.

The book mixes this early history with a contemporary murder mystery, entirely fictional, occurring within a fundamentalist breakaway sect of the LDS church. The narrator/investigator in this tale is Jordan Scott, son of another 19th wife, expelled from the sect by its Prophet for holding hands with one of his half-sisters. Because the alleged murderer is his mother, and the victim his father (this is clear from the start, no spoiler), Jordan feels the need to re-enter the world he was literally thrown out of (from a moving vehicle, onto a highway, aged 14) to find out what really happened.

Ebershoff’s writing style reminded me of Chuck Palahniuk. Jordan is similar to many of Palahniuk’s unsettled outsider protagonists. There was also an echo of one of my favourite books, A S Byatt’s Possession, in the way the past story and the contemporary story are interwoven.

I found the book gripping. I loved the murder mystery and the way it linked back to the historical story, but I found the history of the LDS Church the most fascinating aspect of the book, particularly in the way the people were so willing to accept that what Joseph Smith and Brigham Young said was a sound basis for how to live their lives, and in the way Smith and Young cloaked their very human desires in spirituality. The expression of women’s experience within the sect through diary entries and letters frames their testimony as unreliable, because their doubts are in opposition to the men who hold the power. The women are only seen as reliable when their testimony is corroborated by others, ideally men. I wish I felt able to say that this was a by-product of 19th century society, but there are still religious sects today that subjugate women and make them complicit in their own subjugation by selling it to them as their route to salvation. I saw a connection with The Handmaid’s Tale through the way Brigham Young’s wives were called Aunts, and through the way daughters were raised to become additional wives to propagate the LDS community and were moved to new husbands if a man died or divorced them. Some of the wives who couldn’t or didn’t have children became like the Marthas in Atwood’s Gilead, effectively housekeeping slaves for their husbands and their more fecund wives.

Ebershoff has Ann Eliza Young sum up her issue with religion in a way that makes sense to me.

During this period I began to form new questions. I thought of the men around the country, indeed across the Globe – from the high-hatted Pope in Rome to the turbaned Caliph among the Turks – who stood before their people and proclaimed, each in his own language, a set of infallible truths, many similar to those Brigham offered. How can so many men claim the key to Divine Truth? At the time, I could not articulate this question or others, not in the manner I have just now on the page. Yet they were forming, in the manner of the pearl, I suppose, grinding into a truth. It was an all but imperceptible feeling, but on Sundays I sensed it rubbing against me, deep within. It would be years before I would fully recognise this gem.

The tradition of men setting the agenda and denouncing those, particularly women, who don’t comply has contributed to me rejecting organised religion. Only recently, a British politician who happens to be a Catholic with fundamentalist beliefs about the Bible and god’s word, made the appalling statement that women who become pregnant as the result of rape and choose to terminate the pregnancy are committing a ‘second wrong’, as he would have it. Religion is too often a vehicle for men to take agency over women’s lives, removing our choice and the freedom to exercise it. From a Christian perspective, if the tenets of the Bible are true and the Judeo-Christian god formed humans in his own image and gave them free will, then shouldn’t Christian women, Protestant, Catholic or Non-conformist, be walking away from corruptions of that doctrine that places men above women and curtails their rights? Hmm.

As with any good murder mystery, there are twists and turns along the way, and I started to be suspicious of everyone, apart from the people I should have been suspicious of. The form the book takes is a neat one. I enjoyed the various links across time that pulled both stories together, and the way in which everything joined up at the end.

I only borrowed the book because of its Utah setting, but it’s one of the better books I’ve read so far this year.

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2 thoughts on “The 19th Wife

  1. This is fascinating! You’ve found two things that are normally a huge turnoff to me—a little less so murder mysteries, much more so anything to do with the LDS church—and made me want to read a book that combines them. You know (I think?) that this is the church I grew up in, and left in my mid-twenties. It was the same catalyst for me, the realization that nearly every church is conveniently organized to give men all the power and women none, and rather than fighting for justice and human rights, they nearly always oppose them, fiercely. It’s been several years now since religion had any role in my daily life, so it’s incredibly strange when I go to visit family who are still Mormon. It’s hard for me to understand how people still believe things that to me are transparently false.

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    1. I thought about you a lot as I read this one, wondering how you would react to the story, or even if you would read anything like this. It’s a cracker of a book. It didn’t seem as though Ebershoff was criticising the LDS church so much as providing the reader with information about how it operates and perspectives of different people within it so that we could form our own opinion. It has given me an appreciation of how difficult it is to leave the LDS church. It’s an all consuming personality cult, isn’t it?

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