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David Ebershoff
The 19th Wife
Terry D'Auray © 2008

Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-1-4000-6397-0
514 Pages; $26.00
Publication Date: 08-05-02008
Date Reviewed: 09-03-2008

Index: General Fiction  Mystery

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.

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