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The 19th Wife by David Ebersoff

I'm not alone among the Blogulators in watching and adoring the HBO polygamist drama Big Love. This season has been the show's greatest, with issues of morality and goodness growing grayer and grayer with every drama-filled episode. But it wasn't until last Sunday's episode, "Outer Darkness", that the show revisited in a substantive way Barb's devout Mormonism, and by doing so raised a series of interesting questions about a religion that is both shadowy and clear as a bell.

Barb has always been the link between the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Henricksons' suburban practice of the Principle, and the fundamentalist United Effort Brotherhood compound, a connection that last week came back to haunt her as she was called before her bishop and the stake president and formally excommunicated. Before that happened, Barb snuck into the temple (although the mechanics of how such a surreptitious visit might be accomplished is unclear) and received her Endowments, a sacred rite available only to Mormons in good standing with the church. The sequence was interesting to a non-member such as myself, involving as it did the traditional white undergarments, secret handshakes and passwords, and eventually admission to a meditation chamber mocked up to represent the glory of celestial afterlife the Mormons hold so dear.

Intrigued, I sought more information about the Endowments, the history of the LDS church and its ambiguous relationship to the practice of plural marriage. I'm in the middle of watching the four-hour PBS Frontline special on Mormonism, and as a somewhat supplementary text I took Ebersoff's novel off my shelf.

Though The 19th Wife is fictional in every aspect, it draws much of its drama from the real history of the church and the real experience of life in polygamist compounds like the UEB. The novel has multiple timelines, one of which is the story of Ann Eliza Young, the supposed nineteenth wife of LDS president Brigham Young (BYU's namesake). She publicly divorced the church's second prophet and canvased the country speaking out against plural marriage, Mormonism, and her husband specifically. She even testified before Congress and her experience was instrumental in the passing of the Poland Act, which made it easier for the national government to control the Utah Territory (the Mormons called it Deseret) and better prosecute polygamy, which was illegal. Ann Eliza's narrative is delivered through excerpts from her memoir The 19th Wife (in reality, Ann Eliza did release a memoir entitled Wife No. 19, although she was probably Young's 52nd wife), as well as through letters, diaries, statements, testimonies, and hymns from members of her family and Brigham Young himself (it should be noted that all of these "historical documents" utilized in the novel are fictional, although with varying degrees of believable verisimilitude; Ebersoff insists that their emotional and factual truth are drawn largely from available sources).

The second timeline belongs to Jordan Scott, a gay man in his early twenties who was evicted from the fundamentalist LDS community in which he was raised (here called the First Latter Day Saints, or "Firsts") as a young boy, whose mother is now facing the very serious charge of having killed her husband, Jordan's father, in cold blood. His mother, also the 19th wife, insists that she is innocent of the murder, and Jordan's journey to exonerate her is the thrust of his entire narrative.

Tangential to both stories are the scholarly pursuits of a young Mormon woman named Kelly Dee, descendent of Ann Eliza through her son James from her first marriage to an abusive, dissolute English convert named John Dee. Kelly is vainly attempting to reconcile her ancestor's life with a discussion of the church's polygamous roots and its effects on women. From what I'm learning from the Frontline documentary, such inquiry would be discouraged to the point of excommunication, so while it serves an important narrative function it doesn't quite ring true.

The 19th Wife is a long book, almost six hundred pages, and it drags near the end. I don't know if Ebersoff is a Mormon or not; if he is, he certainly won't be much longer, as this is a pretty damning portrayal of the church's leaders and history, its current policies on intellectual pursuits vis a vis the truth of that history (they're not such big fans), and the horrors that exist on fundamentalist compounds to this day. The mystery set in our time is weak at best, spread out over so many pages and given a perfunctory, almost unbelievable conclusion. The thing is, I would believe it the way I believe anything Big Love tells us about the way people would act on a compound if I knew these characters, but I don't. They're just fundamentalist paper dolls to the reader, and their struggles have no real weight.

The story of Ann Eliza, on the other hand, is very well-done. Other characters (Kelly through her term papers, Ann Eliza's father through his own diary) comment on the breadth and depth of her rage, and indeed her memoir is soaked with bitterness and bile. She really, truly believes that polygamy is the result of unchecked male lust, and the facts as presented seem to support that. After all, the entire novel turns on the question of "How many wives?" Both Brigham Young and Jordan's father stopped counting, caring about and, in Young's case, providing for their wives when they stopped having sex with them. In many cases, Young "married" these women in secret, never bringing them into his household, never publicly acknowledging them or their children, never supporting them, and only visiting them to sleep with them--in what way, then, do these marriages resemble anything but affairs?

Though her anger is justified by the hideous behavior displayed by the men in her life, Ann Eliza doesn't come off as incredibly sympathetic, which is probably Ebersoff's point. Just as the faith of many blinded them to the atrocities they were committing, Ann Eliza's boiling rage blinds her. As far as perspectives go, Kelly's scholarly distance is probably the most objective, so it's a relief to have her fill in the gaps and reorient the reader for things to come.

This may very well be Ebersoff's first book, and though not a tour de force, it is a painstakingly crafted novel that succeeds at most of its efforts. It could be shorter, and Jordan's storyline would be vastly improved by a deeper understanding of characters other than Jordan, but on the whole it was interesting, fast-paced, and well-researched. Also, a bit cheeky: I noticed that the name of one of the very minor characters is an anagram of Ebersoff's own.

But seriously, watch Big Love. And that Frontline special, if you've got four hours.

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  1. Blogger chris | 1:46 PM |  

    Totally awesome that you can watch the whole thing online! Totally want to when I won't have my Big Love fix to satiate me after tonight's finale.

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