Book Review: *The 19th Wife* by David Ebershoff…..AND….we need your help!

I’d like to welcome David Ebershoff and his novel The 19th Wife to today’s stop on his TLC Book Tour.





Faith … is a mystery, elusive to many, and never easy to explain.

          — Ann Eliza Young, as channeled by David Ebershoff in The 19th Wife

About a month ago I posted about attending a reading of David Ebershoff’s  The 19th Wife.  At the time I had read only about 30 pages of the novel, just enough to get a taste of his writing style.  In those first 30 pages I read:

  •  the title page and preface to a faux memoir titled The 19th Wife: One Lady’s Account of Plural Marriage and Its Woes, ostensibly written by Ann Eliza Young the former wife of Brigham Young (summer 1874)
  • the introduction to Ann Eliza’s memoir, “penned” by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • the prologue to a contemporary faux memoir titled Wife #19: A Desert Mystery, by Jordan Scott a 20-ish gay man who was raised in a polygamist community until excommunicated in his mid-teens
  • an email exchange imbedded in Jordan Scott’s story
  • newspaper headlines and articles from both time periods

Those are a lot of “voices” for one author to write; Ebershoff carries these and others with ease.  He uses “excerpts” from newspapers, poetry, even a Wikipedia article to add texture and depth to his The 19th Wife; these various perspectives make his novel feel real.  (I considered writing this post as a faux Wikipedia article with the requisite References, Notes and External Links.  I sketched it out, but I’m sorely lacking in those coding skills …. wouldn’t that have been neat, though?!)

I’m going to re-visit the evening of David’s reading and share some more of what he told the audience that night.

First is a little background on Ann Eliza (Webb) Young.  She was raised a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and was surrounded by plural marriage from a very young age.  Her parents, Chauncey and Elizabeth Webb were devastated by the thought of it when it was first suggested to them, but they accepted the concept because their faith was so strong.  Shortly after Chauncey took a second wife Ann Eliza saw the impact that the radical transformation of the family had on her mother.

She married at a young age, but the marriage was abusive and was annulled with the help of Brigham Young (the Prophet).  Ann Eliza eventually became the 19th wife of Brigham Young (these numbers are questionable, she may have been the 50th!).  This lasted only about five years; when she left Brigham in 1873 she left her faith and her family.  Ann Eliza Young became an overnight sensation in the media, which called her “the rebel of the harem”; she was a strong force in the anti-polygamy movement educating people “outside the faith”.

Ann Eliza Young wrote two memoirs and spent ten years on the lecture circuit, deriding polygamy.  She was a bit of a “showboater” and said almost nothing about the impact of plural marriage on the family.  David Ebershoff gives a voice to the family’s perspective.

In The 19th Wife, David imagines what it would be like to be “the 19th wife” in a contemporary off-shoot of the LDS Church, and gives special consideration to the children of plural marriages.  On one of his research trips he drove about five hours south of Salt Lake City into the town of Hilldale, hoping to interview plural wives.  He found 12,000-16,000 square-foot homes, rough compounds built to house dozens of women and children.  He saw women in their prairie style dresses, thick stockings and hair pinned up.  In the local grocery store he passed groups of 2-3 “sister wives” with several children.  No one would talk to him; he was ignored by all.  All except the police car which literally ran him out of town.  All these details are incorporated into Jordan Scott’s story in The 19th Wife.

In 2005, Jordan is the son of a polygamist and his 19th wife.  He has been a bit of a drifter since being dropped by the side of the road around age 16, but has settled into a routine of sorts with new friends in Pasadena, a fairly steady job, and a loveable pet dog.  One day while browsing the Internet at the library, Jordan checks the newspaper from his hometown.  His mother’s face stares up at him; she has been arrested for the murder of his father.

David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife takes us back and forth between the stories of Eliza Ann and Jordan.  He shares much about the history of polygamy in the LDS Church (although he cautions that the novel is not a substitute for a true history or biography), and tells the tale of Jordan’s return to “Mesadale” in an attempt to help his mother.  It is a wonderful novel; don’t be put off by the size, as Lisa at Minds Alive on the Shelves says, “this book is the fastest 500 pages I’ve ever read.”  After those first 30 pages I read to prepare for the author event, the rest of the novel unfolded quickly.

One last note, the author puts a lot of subtle ironic humor in the book, too, especially in Jordan’s voice (which is probably one of Jordan’s coping mechanisms).   I appreciated that David inserted an anagram of his name into an “off-stage” character; there are documents that cite a Deb Savidhoffer as a contemporary archivist at the LDS Church archives.

You can read more about David and his novel at his website, aptly named The 19th Wife.  A reader’s guide with discussion questions can be found here.

I asked David if he’d be interested in an interview here at She is Too Fond of Books.  He’d like to do it, and we’d like your help.  Leave a question for David – about The 19th Wife, his research, his reading/writing habits … anything that will help you and other readers connect even more with this talented author and his novel.  We’ll pull 10-12 of them for him to answer, and I’ll post this interactive interview in the next few weeks.

And, you can follow the rest of David’s TLC Book Tour on these fine blogs:

19 comments to Book Review: *The 19th Wife* by David Ebershoff…..AND….we need your help!

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