The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Read: 6 February, 2011

Jordan Scott is a Lost Boy. As a teen, he was expelled from his polygamous community after being caught holding hands with one of his step-sisters. Now, he’s just received news that his mother has been arrested for his father’s murder. Thus starts an exposĂ© of polygamy in Mormonism, both in the 19th century and today.

I found the historical fiction portions of this book very interesting. Ebershoff mingled the present-day mystery with “historical documents” to compare a modern day 19th wife to Brigham Young’s famous 19th, Ann Eliza Young. What makes this technique so interesting is that the author will frequently re-write actual documents – for example, he writes several fictional chapters of Ann Eliza’s real Wife No. 19. It’s a weird approach that both adds a great deal of verisimilitude and makes it difficult to separate those parts of the novel that are fact from those that are fiction.

The modern portions of the novel were appropriately gritty – lending realism without being gratuitous. I particularly liked the choice of making the main character gay (and pursuing a relationship) without it being necessary for the plot. I hope to see more novels with gay main characters without the novel itself being about a gay main character.

When I had finished reading the novel, I was curious as to how Mormons have reacted to the less-than-flattering portrayal of the early LDS church, not to mention the sensitivity of mentioning Mormonism in the same context as polygamy. So I took myself to the chat feature on Mormon.org.

Unfortunately, the missionary I was assigned (a lovely young man named Tim) was not aware of the novel (and doesn’t “really discuss books very often with friends either”). I would like to pursue the question a bit further and perhaps try my luck at another time, but so far my sample of one seems to indicate that the Mormon boat hasn’t been rocked too deeply by The 19th Wife.

EDIT 1: Attempt #2 got me Nicole, who assured me that Ebershoff’s book is “not accurate at all unfortunately,” but not to worry because “the Book of Mormon is 100% accurate!” Hoorah!

Unfortunately, she didn’t acknowledge my follow-up questions about whether she had, personally, read The 19th Wife or if her impression was just from what had been discussed in her community. Rather, she wanted to know if I had heard of the Book of Mormon, if I knew what it was, if I was planning to read it, yadda yadda. And so my search continues…

EDIT 2: Attempts #3-4 got me Sloane and Emily, neither of whom had heard of the novel. I officially give up…

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  1. Pingback: A discussion with Mormons « Carpe Scriptura

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