The 19th Wife: A Novel by David Ebershoff
This historical fiction novel tells 2 stories: one is a faux autobiographical/historical archival tale of a woman named Ann Eliza Young, who broke off from the Latter-Day Saints to speak out against polygamy. The other is a modern-day murder mystery in which an outcast from a sect of Mormonism is called back to rescue his mother who is accused of killing his father, a polygamist. As the author jumps back and forth between the 2 stories, the 2 become connected by their similar themes. Each in its own way builds up its own suspense and keeps the reader guessing what will happen next.
The author’s use of various means and voices is interesting. He not only switches voices but switches types of accounts of the stories. He uses first person narrator for the current-day story. He uses various “accounts” (fictional autobiographical, letters, diary entries) to give the story of what happened in the 1800’s. And interestingly the story is based on actual memoirs of Ann Eliza Young and historical archives.
The real drama, though, is in the depiction in both of these story lines of the emotional toll that polygamy takes on the wives, the husbands, and worst, the children. The women become obsolete in their own homes and are demoted as each next wife is taken, which of course breeds jealousy, hatred and fear. The men who have a conscience are torn between their true love for their first wives and their lust for more. They struggle with the balance that is impossible to achieve. And the children are basically anonymous numbers, unless of course, they distinguish themselves by being at all different and/or not following the “rules.” Then they are banished from everything they know and love.
I learned so much about the origins of the Mormon religion — how it came to be and how it evolved into what it is today. The issue of polygamy was crucial in its beginnings and while Mormonism has evolved beyond polygamy for the most part, there are sects that one can find throughout the U.S., evidently, that are still practicing this destructive lifestyle. This book helps to articulate how difficult it can be to live in this cultish environment and again how difficult it can be to break away.