Review

The 19th Wife

by David Ebershoff

Fiction and historical nonfiction intertwine in this hefty
page-turner revolving around two wives. Ann Eliza Young was once
the 19th wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young before she denounced
him publicly. Her fictional counterpart is BeckyLyn, the mother of
narrator Jordan Scott. BeckyLyn is the 19th wife and accused
murderer of Jordan's fundamentalist cult polygamist father.

As the story opens, Jordan is finally living contentedly in Los
Angeles after being one of the "lost boys" ousted from Mesadale,
the Utah compound composed of fundamentalists calling themselves
Firsts (as Jordan notes, Firsts aren't Mormons; they are a splinter
group who left when the Mormon Church denounced polygamy). Jordan's
parents kicked him out of the compound supposedly for holding the
hand of one of his many sisters. Jordan knows, though, that young
men are routinely exiled so the older men will have no competition
in marrying the young women.

Jordan happens to read a Utah newspaper online and is shocked to
see his own parents featured on the front page. His polygamist
father has been shot to death. His mother, BeckyLyn (his father's
19th wife), is in prison awaiting a murder trial. Jordan packs up
his dog, Elektra, and drives his old van to visit his mother.
BeckyLyn insists she is innocent. Jordan wants to believe her but
can't help feeling skeptical since all evidence points to her.
However, he drives out to Mesadale to see what he can find out.
When he reaches his old home, he notices the everyday sights of the
community: a truck packed with one man's five wives, the enormous
warehouse-like makeshift homes of polygamist families, and the
group's Prophet's police force.

As Jordan investigates, he talks to his mother's sister wives
and to his own far-flung siblings, some of whom he has never met.
He discovers a fascinating underground railroad, joins up with an
unexpected companion and falls into romance (Jordan is gay, but his
orientation is --- refreshingly --- not an issue). He also gathers
clues that point him toward a belief in his mother's innocence, but
how can he prove that someone else killed his father?

Chapters depicting the story of Ann Eliza Young's life in the
19th century are skillfully braided into Jordan's tale. Ann Eliza
was a unique character: gorgeous, intelligent, dramatic and flawed.
As a first wife in a devout Mormon family, Ann Eliza's mother had
believed in the principle of celestial marriage and yet was
devastated when her husband acquired more wives.

Mormon leader Brigham Young was taken with the vibrant young Ann
Eliza, who was determined not to be a part of his enormous
polygamous household. However, he managed to manipulate her into
marrying him. Her unhappiness with the marriage turned to anger
after he used and abandoned her. Ann Eliza left the church and
began divorce proceedings against him. She wrote two tell-all
autobiographies and toured the country as a speaker to expose the
ugliness of polygamy. The American public turned Ann Eliza into a
celebrity.

Some readers may be initially drawn to THE 19th WIFE because
of the media coverage of the Texas FLDS Yearning for Zion
Ranch, but they will find themselves compelled to turn pages thanks
to the fascinating braided plots peopled with sympathetic
characters. The historical factual tale and the fictional crime
story are separately gripping; together, each plays off the
strengths of the other, with the present-day Jordan adding welcome
breeziness and levity. The modern murder mystery concludes in a
satisfying and unexpected manner, while Ann Eliza Young's story
leaves readers with lingering questions. This entertaining and
thought-provoking read is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on December 22, 2010

The 19th Wife
by David Ebershoff

  • Publication Date: June 2, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812974158
  • ISBN-13: 9780812974157