Among the miracles of literature is its ability to transport readers to a world unlike their own; in this case, one in which men collect wives as property. David Ebershoff delves into this world with The 19th Wife, a vivid and startling account of the frightening religious tyranny and exploitation that transpires behind the walls of a polygamist sect.
The novel, which takes place in the fictional town of Mesadale, Utah, shifts between the past and the present as it alternates between two primary narrators. The contemporary portion is narrated by Jordan Scott, a twenty-year-old man who was banished by his sect at fourteen and forced to live on his own. Upon hearing that his father has been murdered by his nineteenth wife—Jordan’s mother—he returns to Mesadale to confront his past, as well as the mother who betrayed him. The other narrator is historical figure Ann Eliza Young—nineteenth wife of Brigham Young, the second Prophet of the Mormon Church—who would launch a campaign to end polygamy in the United States during the 19th century.
The portion of the novel dedicated to Ann Eliza Young never failed to absorb me. She begins with the story of her parents: their courtship and marriage, their religious conversion and the rift between them caused by polygamy. This would color Ann Eliza’s own perception of the institution and, combined with her time spent as one of Brigham’s many wives, prompt her to tour the United States to speak out against polygamy and Brigham Young himself. This courageous heroine makes for an inspirational and utterly transfixing story that transports readers to another place and time, and lucidly portrays all sides of the issue from the perspectives of Ann Eliza’s family, including her parents, her brothers and her son. The result is a sweeping portrait of polygamy’s effects on women and men and alike—the sexual tyranny, the loss of personal identity and the use of religion to govern and manipulate, to name a few—that is as gritty as it is poignant.
Jordan Scott’s story, however, starts off promising before veering off into cheap gimmicks and a rushed, anticlimactic ending that leaves loose ends untied. The murder mystery begins to falter once Ann Eliza’s story begins, and Jordan’s story seems merely an afterthought, as if Ebershoff neglected it in favor of the other storyline, which undoubtedly required more research and effort. The characterizations are so thinly drawn that I stopped caring about what would happen and became impatient to get back to Ann Eliza’s narrative.
Ultimately I attribute this novel’s worth to its riveting depiction of an important historical figure, characterized as a flawed yet bold and resilient woman who spoke out against men in power during a patriarchal era. My advice: read it for Ann Eliza Young and don’t expect much out of the other plotline.