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Book Review

A mystery, polygamy, and broken lives

By Chris Navratil
October 8, 2008
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The Nineteenth Wife
By David Ebershoff
Random House, 514 pp., $26

When the raid of the polygamist sect Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Texas dominated the news in April, reports emerged of child abuse, sexual exploitation of minors, and possible incest. More than 460 children were seized from their families by the authorities. With the cameras focused on the mothers, with their freakishly long hair and pioneer-style dresses, they seemed indistinguishable from one another, stoically trying to evade reporters. Were these women victims? And to what extent did faith direct their actions?

Though the Mormon Church has disavowed polygamy since the late 19th century, the practice is deeply rooted to its early history and that of its founder, Joseph Smith, and his successor, Brigham Young. Polygamy, as it relates to the history and beliefs of the Mormon Church, is the focus of David Ebershoff's latest novel, "The Nineteenth Wife." And he constructs two compelling fictional narratives in an attempt to depict both its history and present incarnation, as practiced by the few sects still in existence (officially non-Mormon). Ebershoff portrays the past through a fictional memoir of Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young's 19th wife. He bases it on her published memoir, which had created controversy on publication and helped bring an end to polygamy within the church. Rounding out Ann Eliza's narrative are first-person reflections from members of her family as well as reports and documents from the period, and an introduction by Harriet Beecher Stowe, all of which are fictionalized.

Ann Eliza's memoir traces her personal encounters with polygamy, from a young child growing up in a household where her mother was forced to share her husband with several wives, to her own eventual marriage to Brigham Young. All of the male members of her family had multiple wives. Though they came to embrace the practice with varying degrees of commitment and enthusiasm -- most having upward of 12 wives, and Brigham Young having as many as 50 to 60 -- they all felt they were acting on the dictates of the church. Yet Ann Eliza reveals that these men were more often motivated by lust, typically gravitating to younger, more attractive women for each subsequent wife and neglecting their older wives.

A parallel narrative follows Jordan Scott, a 20-year-old gay man living in present-day Los Angeles. He was exiled from a fundamentalist sect near the Arizona-Utah line when he was 14, because he was believed to be too close to one of his stepsisters. His mother was forced to abandon him in the desert, leaving him to fend for himself. Jordan returns to the community when he discovers that she is being convicted for the murder of her husband. Like Ann Eliza, BeckyLyn Scott is also thought to be the 19th wife of her husband (the wife count proves confusing in both the past and present narratives, as many of the men are unsure or unwilling to own up to their actual number of wives). Convinced that she's innocent, Jordan reconnects with his estranged mother and sets out to find the killer within the sect. His pursuit unfolds in the form of a mystery thriller. Below the plotline the inner workings of this tightly controlled community are brought to light. The polygamous relationships are complicated, and the issues prove not dissimilar to the marital dilemmas faced by Ann Eliza.

This was a fine premise for a novel, and Ebershoff's ambitious use of several first-person narratives enables him to summarize an interesting flow of historic information while keeping the story moving at a steady clip. And yet one wishes this were a stronger novel. Characterization, not exactly this author's strong suit, proves particularly weak throughout much of his modern-day narrative. By choosing to depict the characters and events through Jordan's eyes, Ebershoff can't seem to expand beyond the limited perception that he establishes for this young man. Stock characters emerge in the place of complex individuals. I had hoped for more insight into this bizarre form of community but was left with a mere glimpse behind the facade.

Chris Navratil is a freelance writer living in Denver. He has edited two literary anthologies, "In the House of Night" and "Man of My Dreams."

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