At the end of the 19th century, Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young, embarked on a one-woman crusade to end polygamy in America. She published two memoirs about her experience as a plural wife and became one of the leading public speakers of her day. Her much-publicized divorce and outspoken apostasy helped bring about a reform of polygamy laws in the 1890s. David Ebershoff's timely new novel, The 19th Wife, mixes fictionalized excerpts from Young's memoir with a contemporary murder mystery that takes place in a Mormon sect very similar to the Yearning for Zion ranch that was in the news so much this spring.
Jordan is 20 years old, gay and living in Pasadena, with a decent job and a dog. He is completely estranged from the polygamous community where he grew up, and no wonder. At age 14, he was taken to the side of the road and literally dumped there. His wryly funny, rarely bitter voice is one of the rich rewards of the novel. When Jordan hears that his mother, the 19th of 20-something wives, has been arrested for her husband's murder, he knows instinctively that she is innocent. He returns to Utah to solve the mystery, which means facing his family, the community and the faith that abandoned him.
Although Ann Eliza Young's memoir exists (and can be read online via Google Books), Ebershoff has chosen to fictionalize sections, as well as create period documents such as articles, letters and interviews. These round out Ann Eliza's story and offer "eyewitness" accounts of early Mormon life from her parents and son, as well as from Brigham Young himself. Similarly, Jordan's personal story is enriched by characters he meets along his journey: a young runaway, a hotel clerk and most significantly, a Mormon scholar whose research subject is Ann Eliza Young and who has much to offer about the ways intellectual freedom enriches faith.
Ebershoff has clearly done his research, as the extensive bibliography shows, but the book never bogs down in dry, factual detail. The 19th Wife subtly relates the way Mormon history continues to affect present-day policies and realities with a surprising amount of insight and sensitivity, creating an entertaining, sympathetic and sometimes very funny novel.
Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville.