Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff (4.5/5)

First published: 2009
Page count: 598

The back says: For the first time in six years, Jordan returns from California to Utah, to visit his mother – in jail. As a young boy he was expelled from his family’s secretive polygamous Mormon sect. Now his father has been found shot dead in front of his computer, and one of his many wives – Jordan’s mother – is accused of the crime.

Over a century earlier, Ann Eliza Young, nineteenth wife of Brigham Young, second Prophet of the Mormon Church, tells the sensational story of how she battled for her freedom from her powerful husband, to lead a crusade to end polygamy in the United States. Bold, shocking and gripping, The 19th Wife expertly weaves together these two narratives in an enthralling epic of love, family, murder and faith.
I say: Goodness me, what a tour de force this was. I had trouble putting it down once I had started reading, and it was on my mind long after I finished. I have always been interested in religion, but since I lost my faith (I used to be Christian) I have been particularly fascinated with The Church of Latter Day Saints and Mormonism.
Don’t ask me why, because I have no idea.

Due to this I was rather excited to start reading The 19th Wife and I have to concede that I am really glad that I did. There is so much startling history in this novel that I was googling while reading to see how much was made up by Ebershoff and how much was based on actual events. As always with religion and history, it’s hard to discern what is true and what isn’t, but I’m not going to go into that not.

So, Jordan goes back to his hometown to see if his mother killed his father and, of course, soon starts to work on the case. He gets a runaway kid as a sidekick and even though a lot of the plot was unbelievable, it was fast paced and very intriguing to see how life in the polygamist village was depicted.

And then we have the autobiography of Ann Eliza Young (who I didn’t know was a real person) entitled Wife No. 19, in which we follow her life from 1844 until 1917 when she disappeared. I was so fascinated by these excerpts from the autobiography that I have downloaded it and will read it when the mood strikes me.
Finally there were some documents, letters, and even a fictional essay about Ann Eliza Young thrown in for good measure that annoyed me. Although I understand that Ebershoff wanted them in there to give answers to certain questions, the digressions were often tedious and took too much attention away from the two main plots. There’s a letter inserted from Ann Eliza Young’s son in which he goes on and on about watching dolphins at the shore while speculating on what happened to his mother.


I’m not sure what further to say about the novel other than that it is well-written and riveting. Even if one isn’t fascinated with LDS or Mormonism there’s enough about cult behaviour in here to interest everyone. The conclusion of the murder was very banal and I wish it had taken a different turn, although it wasn’t my first suspect I pride myself in the fact that it was my second suspect who did it.

As always, I was stupid enough to watch the film version of the novel and I will do everyone a favour by telling them not to see it. It’s terrible. Really bad acting all around, and the plot has been changed and ruined (which is stupid considering they even changed facts from Ann Eliza Young’s life, like making it so she had one child instead of two, and the number of women her father married). A travesty all around.

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