I’m not usually that into murder mysteries. But when a novel is a cross between a murder mystery and historical fiction? And when you add in one of the most controversial religious doctrines in American history? I’m in! Plus, someone several years ago had recommended The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, and I was lucky enough to find it at the library book sale.
This novel starts out by telling the story of Jordan Scott, a young man who became a “lost boy” several years before; kicked out of a Fundamentalist Mormon closed community for the minor (and false) charge of holding hands with a girl. He finds out that his mother, who was forced to cut off contact when he was booted from the community, has been charged with the murder of his father, and is in jail awaiting trial. He re-establishes contact with her, even though he is still angry and hurt about being abandoned, in order to find the truth.
The story is interwoven with the story of Ann Eliza Young, one of the true life wives of Brigham Young; the one who renounced her faith and fled the community, at the same time filing for divorce from her husband. She wrote a book about her experience, and this novel includes excerpts from Mrs. Young’s book, detailing her experiences within the Mormon church, as a plural wife, and her apostasy and attempt to get the U.S. Government to ban polygamy.
While Ann Eliza Young was a real person, and did write a book, it is unclear whether the excerpts in this novel are taken from Young’s book or another piece of fiction. It probably doesn’t matter; they are well written and believable. Of course, Ebershoff fills in the gaps of Ann Eliza’s life as well with an intriguing story about how she ultimately ended up as one of Brigham Young’s 55 wives.
As the two stories alternate, suspense builds as Jordan confronts the still raw emotions he feels after being cast out, and as he gets himself into increasingly dangerous situations as he takes the law into his own hands and tries to solve the mystery of who really murdered his father. Although fiction, the scare tactics used by the men of the closed community to get Jordan to leave well enough alone, well, those are real.
Although fiction, this novel does a great job of shedding light on a religious community that is all too real, and that uses its power to perpetuate a system of subjugating its women and children to the demands of a few powerful men. It is heartbreaking to reflect on the hopeless lives these women lead, entirely at the mercy of their Prophet. It is a real page turner – although a long book (544 pages), it kept me captivated from beginning to end.
To be honest, I would have loved the book even if it didn’t have the murder mystery plot line. I thought the historical fiction pieces of the novel were just that powerful. But the murder did provide an interesting bit of intrigue and a tie in to present day. Now that I’ve finished The 19th Wife, I might have to read Ann Eliza Young’s book too!
Have you read The 19th Wife? What did you think of it?