There are as many ways to tell a story as there are storytellers and
the choice of approach can often distinguish or damn the story from
the get-go. In his latest novel, David Ebershoff has chosen to tell
the story of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of LDS prophet Brigham Young,
in the form of an autobiographical book-within-a-book. This fictional
autobiography is wrapped with a contemporary crime story involving murder
in a Utah FLDS settlement (so called Firsts, who still believe in and
practice polygamy) involving yet another "19th wife" and her
gay son. And while this all may sound structurally contrived and a bit
overly complicated, the result is a fascinating and timely novel that
serves up both absorbing history and a lot of heart in a compelling,
totally engaging read.
Ebershoff has done much homework here, delivering an accurate and detailed
history of the Mormon Church from its initial conception by Joseph Smith
in New York to its ultimate settlement across the country in Salt Lake
City where Brigham Young established and ruled a colony of deeply devoted
LDS church members. Ann Eliza, the daughter of a polygamous household,
never quite fit the mold of the perfect Mormon woman. As an actress
in the local theater, she captured the attention of one John Dee, whom
she married and, in a bold and rare move, divorced. Ultimately, she
became the 19th wife in Young's harem, where she was ignored and essentially
abandoned. Always at odds with the concept of "celestial marriage"
and disillusioned and mightily angered at her treatment by the prophet,
she filed for divorce and alimony and launched a nation-wide speaking
tour aimed at outlawing the practice of polygamy.
By electing to write this history in the first-person persona of Ann
Eliza, Ebershoff adopts a slightly stilted prose that seems old-fashioned
and formal, but is wholly in keeping with the style of the early 1800s.
Ann Eliza's narrative is enriched by supporting letters and diaries
(again, all fictional) from her father and her son, each offering differing
accounts of factual events and apparent motivations. The sum is a rich
and moving history of a faith that both astounds and educates the contemporary
reader and offers insight into the current Texas FLDS headlines.
The contemporary crime story involves Jordon Scott who, as a boy of
13 was turned out from the FLDS compound on orders of its leader, literally
abandoned on the highway out of town by his mother. Years later, he
learns that his mother, the 19th wife in a contemporary polygamous household,
has been charged with the murder of her husband. Jordon, despite his
ill treatment, doubts her guilt, and sets out to unravel the often ugly
layers of mystery and deceit in the polygamous compound. Ebershoff here
adopts a hip, young prose style, often clever and humorous, that's supported
with emails, Wikipedia entries (fictional), cell-phone dialogues, and
all manner of stuff appropriate to today's wired world.
The old and
the new stories are interlaced with grace, an episode of one serving
to support and enhance the other and both developing Ebershoff's narrative
themes of love and faith, of power and its abuse. 'The 19th Wife' is
an emotional story, leading the reader from skepticism to outrage, from
outrage to anger as the injustices of both the past and the present
unfold. And along the way, it's impossible not to shed more than a few
tears. It's a compelling story, masterfully written, that will likely
linger in the reader's mind long after the last page has been turned.