I am but one, yet to this day countless others lead lives even more destitute and enslaved than mine ever was. Perhaps my story is the exception because I escaped, at great risk, polygamy’s conjugal chains; and that my husband is the Mormon Church’s Prophet and Leader, Brigham Young, and I am his 19th and final, wife. -From The 19th Wife, page 6-
Ann Eliza Young was, in fact, a plural wife of Brigham Young in the late 1800s. Her life, including her very public divorce and attack against Celestial Marriage (which spurred the passage of the Poland Act, and ultimately forced the LDS Church to ban the practice), is the basis for David Ebershoff’s third historical novel The 19th Wife. Ebershoff weaves the fictionalized version of Ann Eliza’s story with that of a present day plural wife, her son and a murder mystery.
Ebershoff’s writing engaged me immediately, especially when he speaks in Ann Eliza’s voice. He includes letters, newspaper reports and occasional other narrators to construct a complete picture of the life of this interesting historical female character. I was less engaged by the parallel story from present day. It was during those parts of the novel where I remembered I was reading a book. At times the plot felt contrived to connect to Ann Eliza’s life, and I never really related to the primary narrator who is the son of an accused murderess.
At times, Ebershoff tends to ramble a bit, but he quickly gets back on track and moves the plot forward. His portrayal of the first Saints is not entirely flattering and this may upset some people. But, he relies heavily on the history of the LDS church and its leaders to weave his tale, and for that he cannot be faulted.
The novel is a real door stopper at nearly 600 pages (I read an Advance Reader’s Edition) but despite its length, it is a fairly quick read which speaks well of Ebershoff’s direct and compelling prose. I would be interested to read Ebershoff’s first novel The Danish Girl, loosely based on the life of Danish painter Einar Wegener who became the first man to undergo a sex-change operation in 1931.
This novel will be released by Random House August 5th. For those readers who like historical novels or who are interested in the history of the LDS church and its leaders, this is a book you might like.