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I picked up The 19th Wife: A Novel because I got bored waiting for my bus. I crossed to the used bookstore across from the bus station, but didn't see much of interest until I caught sight of the book near the entrance just as I was getting ready to leave. The book seemed to have an interesting premise and promised to tell the story of polygamy in the Mormon faith, a subject I was curious about. I did a quick search on my phone for reviews, which generally seemed positive. I grabbed the book with minutes to spare before the bus arrived.

One thing the book gets points for at the outset is its timeliness. It came out in 2009, the year after the 2008 Texas raid on a polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) compound that made the abuses of plural marriage a national issue. The 19th Wife tracks the issue of polygamy from both ends, you might say, both its roots in the beginning of Mormonism and its results in the present day. In the process it deals with a lot of related issues, of religion, oppression, faith, and community in an entertaining if not flawless way.

The book leads off in the present day with a murder investigation. BeckyLyn Scott, the nineteenth wife of a polygamous patriarch in the fictional FLDS compound in Mesadale, Arizona, is accused of murdering her husband in his basement den. She has a son, Jordan Scott, one of the excommunicated "lost boys" whom she personally abandoned at a roadside when he was fourteen at the order of the FLDS Prophet (either Warren Jeffs or a fictionalized version of him). Jordan, now twenty and building a life for himself in California, reads about his mother's arrest online and feels drawn to drive to Utah to see her.

The past plot takes place in the nineteenth century, and tracks the family and personal history of Ann Eliza Young, the nineteenth wife (supposedly) of Brigham Young, the early Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints leader who succeeded Joseph Smith as its President. Ann Eliza's public and acrimonious divorce from Brigham, and her subsequent book and speaking tour throughout the United States, publicized the issue of polygamy and helped build the outcry that led to the practice being banned by the LDS church--a decision that, in turn, led to a schism within the Church that culminated with the FLDS splitting off to continue the practice of polygamy.

There are a lot of things to like about the story and the writing. Ebershoff captures in a lively way the emotions and voices of young people in the modern-day part of the story. The author's humor shines through in a story that deals with some heavy stuff from spiritual abuse to rape to murder. Both the past and present parts of the plot portray polygamy in a human and sympathetic way, from its beginnings in the early Mormon church when Joseph Smith had the "revelation" that the faithful should practice plural marriage, to its present-day form in the FLDS where the institution has degenerated into an authoritarian cult of drug-addled deadbeats living off the welfare checks of their wives.

I particularly appreciated how Ebershoff made it clear that the LDS and FLDS were different groups, and that ditching polygamy was likely the reason the LDS church retained its vitality and remained a strong, humane community. The very real decency and community of Mormons that I have known in real life are very much in evidence throughout, in the kindhearted and helpful (and unfailingly polite, LOL) Mormon characters in the book. Given the subject matter the work could very easily have descended into Mormon-baiting, and I was relieved that it was anything but, so far as I could tell.

This rich complexity in the treatment of faith and community may be among the book's greatest strengths. One of the great ironies in the story, and likely in Mormon history, is that Ann Eliza probably helped save Mormonism by her apostasy to the doctrine of plural marriage. And while the story make it eminently clear that polygamy had and has deeply-rooted problems and it was a good thing the Mormon church outlawed it, the author also does not neglect the humanity and grace that arise even in flawed institutions.

Such balanced treatment extends to characterization as well. Even Ann Eliza, though arguably a heroic character, also comes across as a realistically flawed person who might not be an entirely reliable narrator of her family history and marriage to Brigham. Neither does Brigham himself come across as an entirely trustworthy voice, even though his charisma and heroism are as real as Ann Eliza's. The complexity of the situations and characters was pleasing in a book that could easily have turned didactic and boring.

All this isn't to say the book doesn't have its flaws. A key device in The 19th Wife is the use of multiple voices through letters and written histories to tell the story of polygamy and the Mormon Church. Janet Maslin of the New York Times pointed out that Ebershoff did not achieve the necessary level of ventriloquism for this process, and I agree. Most of the time I could suspend my disbelief well enough, but there were times when I was forcibly reminded of the man behind the curtain when these far-flung and varied characters seemed to share similar fixations and writing tics. Or when Ann Eliza's brother started writing like he was trying to impress his workshop buddies. And as for Ann Eliza's grown dolphin-obsessed son, I wanted him to be real just so I could fly to California and punch him in the face. With a dolphin.

One other glaring flaw was the way the modern-day murder mystery wrapped up. Maybe this was a case where the aforementioned timeliness of the book worked against it. My speculation is that the pressure to get the book out in time for the FLDS issue to be relevant, a smart financial decision, didn't leave time to properly edit the blatantly weak conclusion to the murder plot. I didn't exactly hate the reveal, I just didn't like that it wasn't built up enough and that it pretty much wasted the protagonists' efforts. Maybe that was the point in some obscure way, and it's possible the book's use of murder mystery genre tropes attuned my expectations in that direction. Nevertheless, I think the book would have felt stronger overall with a more satisfying conclusion to the modern-day part of the plot.

Overall, though, I think the book ended well. Once the pretensions of murder mystery were out of the way it concluded pretty much the only way it could have, affirming the ineffable mystery of belief. I don't hold truck with organized religion, as regular readers know, but I am forever fascinated and humbled by the human capacity for faith, and our resilience in finding goodness and togetherness in even contradictory and oppressive institutions. For that reason The 19th Wife is a book that will stay with me a while.


ljlee: (Default)
L.J. Lee

June 2016

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