The 19th Wife – Book Review

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.

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    • Gayla Collins(weeklyreaders) on July 29, 2008 at 09:58

    This lifestyle baffles me. Did you get more of an understanding of it from reading this book?


    • Wendy on July 29, 2008 at 10:07

    I agree Gayla – I’ve always struggled to understand it. But, yes, the book gives some insight into the manipulation of the faith which made women feel that their only way to Heaven was through “celestial marriage.” To me it feels almost cult-like. There is a HUGE difference between “the Firsts” who still practice plural marriage, and the mainstream LDS church which denounces it.

    • Mickey on July 29, 2008 at 11:07

    Although as Gayla said this lifestlye baffles me, I am intrigued by this dimension of the orthodox Mormon faith.

    • Diane on July 29, 2008 at 12:55

    I enjoyed your review Wendy. I had high hopes for this book and i am at the top of the library reserves list. i will still read it most likely. Thanks for posting.

    • Wendy on July 29, 2008 at 13:46

    Mickey: I know what you mean. Have you read Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven? It is a really well-written book about the Mormon’s, their history, and polygamy. I think you might like it.

    Diane: Oh, I hope you will still read it…many reviewers rated it higher than I did!

    • Teddy on July 29, 2008 at 22:54

    Excellent review Wendy! You just added another one to my TBR!

    • Wendy on July 30, 2008 at 07:03

    Teddy: Hope you enjoy it 🙂

  1. I worked with a member of the LDS some years ago and although I couldn’t begin to accept her beliefs I was impressed by the way in which the community looked after each other in times of personal trouble. I think I’ll have to at least get this from the library, thanks for the review.

  2. I have seen the title going around but I hadn’t realized it was a historical fiction about the Mormon Church. Thanks for the informative review. It’s already on my TBR list.

    • Carrie on August 2, 2008 at 12:02

    Huh. I hadn’t heard of it at all but it sounds rather interesting. Thanks for bringing it to my attention and letting me know what it’s about!

    • Wendy on August 2, 2008 at 16:29

    Ann: The mainstream LDS community is full of wonderful, close knit families. This book primarily deals with “the Firsts” who are the fundamentalist sect and still believe in pologamy as a pathway to heaven…

    Petunia: You’re welcome. I hope you’ll enjoy the book when you read it!

    Carrie: It is being released in August I believe. It’s worth a look 🙂

    • Connie on August 31, 2008 at 18:26

    My family just relocated from San Francisco Bay Area to Salt Lake City so I glommed onto The 19th Wife to help me develop a better understanding of the LDS and FLDS culture in which my Jewish grandsons would be raised. As a Roman Catholic, I first read Jon Krakauer’s, Under the Banner of Heaven. Then I read Eliza Walls book followed by Carolyn Jessop’s book, Escape. Still, I remain baffled at the number of people that can follow the genesis of the Book of Mormon with a straight face. I have ejoyed reading The 19th Wife which has continued to support my skepticism regarding Mormon beliefs.

    • Wendy on September 1, 2008 at 08:17

    Connie: That’s the wonderful thing about books, isn’t it? We can pick a subject and find tons of books to help broaden our perspective. I agree with you about the ideology. I also read Krakauer’s book. The thing I try to keep in my mind, however, is that LDS is VERY different from FLDS (which seems to get all the press these days).

    • 2 of 6 on September 22, 2008 at 09:41

    I read Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” and am a little more than mid way thru “The 19th Wife.” I am also a former member of the LDS church. After 40 years of loving it I finally had to throw in the towel (just this last spring in fact) and remove myself from this cultish society. What has really struck me most about the book is the every day practice of polygamy, which of course I had been taught as a believing Mormon, but never really considered it’s implications to my life personally, since I knew I’d never have to live this doctrine. The idea that one’s spiritual progress is fulfilled by taking on additional wives (for a man) or being a plural wife (for a woman) sounds ludicrous to me as I think about it now. But I accepted it when I was a true believer, because when you are a true believer in Mormonism, BELIEVING is what it is ALL about. When a man would think, “well, I’ll take another wife” it seems to me to be impossible to disconnect that from his libido. Why would anyone have more than one legal wife? One wife alone is a major project that any married man would readily admit takes an awful lotta work. To add a second or subsequent wife to your life could ONLY be possible if A) you truly believed it was necessary, and B) you allowed your libido to guide your choices. Now, LDS doctrine provides a motivation for “A.” That being said, it becomes clear to me that Joseph Smith concocted the doctrine to satisfy his sexual urges: B. Why in heaven, hell, or earth would the good God of the Universe REQUIRE plural marriage to be the fulcrum allowing you to enter into heaven? The early LDS initially rejected the idea of plural marriage, naturally. It wasn’t part of their culture. But the reason they accepted it was because A) they deeply believed in the absolute veracity of Joseph Smith’s claim to be a prophet of God, and B) they allowed their libido to guide their choices. “A” is the keystone to Mormon belief. But Mormons don’t just believe in their church, they KNOW it to be the total absolute truth. Ask any true LDS believer. THAT is the very thing that propels Mormonism forward, way past the mere “belief” of the average Christian. It is connected, weld-like, to their religious euphoria which they refer to as their “testimony.” And Mormons DO whatever their prophet leaders tell them to do. This is why they accepted the doctrine of plural marriage. Today in California, Proposition 8 is on the ballot to end the recognition of Same-Sex Marriages. The LDS church is at the forefront of seeing this proposition to be made law. They have individually (not as a church) donated millions of dollars to support it and they are among the most numerous neighborhood walkers passing out literature, encouraging the voters who they talk to at their door to vote YES on Prop 8, and even provide lawn signs which are slotted to go up today/September 22nd all over the state of California. I have a good friend who is an active member of the LDS church who told me that he personally has contributed $500 to the cause. Now, I know that he can well afford to do this, and can probably afford more than that. But why, I asked myself, would this guy give that much money to a political cause like this? The reason? “A”; Mormons totally believe in their church. The church has told them to support Prop 8, and so they do just that. I venture to say that my friend and the numerous other Mormons would NOT have made any contributions to this issue if indeed their church hadn’t told them to do so. Mormons DO what they are TOLD, because of “A.” This is why they accepted polygamy. Now today, while they don’t practice polygamy, the doctrine is still taught, it’s still a part of their theology. They just don’t practice it in real time. They DO however practice it today in the idea that if their spouse dies and they take another wife, they will have two (or more) wives in the next life. The men of the FLDS who practice polygamy in real time, do so because of A and B. And in all honesty, I cannot see any FLDS man who doesn’t really enjoy allowing his “B” reason to be the justification for his “A” reason. Why would it have been any different for the early Mormons of the 19th Century?

    • Wendy on September 22, 2008 at 10:35

    2 of 6: Thank you for your perspective on this – I think it is helpful to hear from an “insider.” It is an interesting topic…I have to say one of my biggest concerns with the FDLS polygamist sect is that they are abusing young girls…I find it very disturbing that a religion would encourage older men to marry young girls (under the age of consent) and then hide behind their religion to avoid prosecution…

    • ingrid on February 11, 2009 at 03:35

    I have not read this book, but am very keen to do so. Having read ‘escape by carline jessop’ the life of the wives in this situation make me wonder ‘why do they do it!! why are they still there!! ‘

  3. Reading dissenters’ version of history will never compare to actually reading The Book of Mormon and deciding for yourself if the doctrines it teaches are true.
    Polygamy was practiced by a very small percentage of LDS men. Like in Biblical times of old (Solomon for example) God instituted polygamy for a short time for His purposes. Then He rescinded it.
    The LDS Church does provide strong guidelines, but that is one reason why I’m attracted to it. So many churches today are afraid to say what’s right and what’s wrong. I’m looking for a religion that’s willing to stand for something.

    • Wendy on February 22, 2009 at 16:40

    Book of Mormon: You make a good point about having an insider’s view. As I mentioned above, however, I would be more tolerant if polygamy did not involve young girls who are often under the age of 16…to me this is child abuse, pure and simple. If two consenting ADULTS want to engage in pleural marriage I say “whatever”…to each his own; but a child cannot give consent. I think many churches provide strong moral guidelines for their congregations…it is a personal choice and every individual needs to choose what is right for him or her.

    • rae on May 18, 2009 at 03:22

    hhhmmm, interesting conversation. I would just like to back up book of mormon’s point and say I have been LDS for 27 years (as opposed to FLDS) and have never once heard the idea taught
    that ” one’s spiritual progress is fulfilled by taking on additional wives (for a man) or being a plural wife (for a woman)” or anything like that. I am obvously aware that it happened at times in history but also that it was for a very specific reason at the time, hence it being resinded after that.
    Also on a tongue in cheek level I have to disagree with the statement that mormons do what they are told. we are definately people rather than robots with all the differences that come with it. I would say Caribousmom’s statement “I think many churches provide strong moral guidelines for their congregations…it is a personal choice and every individual needs to choose what is right for him or her.” is very much the case for us as with anyone else. yes, our church is not afraid to stand up and say what it believes but each of us have the choice of whether to follow or not as does the rest of the world. And I have always been taught at church to respect others rights to believe different to me, something I am actually very thankful for.

  4. Rae: Thank you for weighing in. I have made this point multiple times, and will once again say: THIS book is about FLDS, NOT LDS…the two are very different. So I am not surprised that your experience (being LDS) does not relate to much of what is being talked about in this thread. That said, I want to reiterate that personal religious choices are just that – personal…and I would never tell someone what religion to practice. I draw the line at child abuse (ie: forcing young girls into marriage with older men).

    • rae on May 18, 2009 at 08:30

    sorry, I thought 2 of 6 was saying that they were taught that
    ” one’s spiritual progress is fulfilled by taking on additional wives (for a man) or being a plural wife (for a woman)”
    as a member of the LDS church, so my response was to that as I certainly have not come across that one. maybe they meant FLDS. if so my mistake 🙂
    I obviously agree with your reiterated point. I can’t imagine anything that would make me ok with that

    • 2 of 6 on May 18, 2009 at 12:46

    Ok, I did say: “The idea that one’s spiritual progress is fulfilled by taking on additional wives (for a man) or being a plural wife (for a woman) sounds ludicrous to me as I think about it now. But I accepted it when I was a true believer, because when you are a true believer in Mormonism, BELIEVING is what it is ALL about.”
    And I stand by that statement. Yes, the current LDS church does not teach that NOW. But it DID when plural marriage was a living part of its system. Where do you think the FLDS got that idea? And when I joined the LDS church back in 1968, it was still being taught that in the days when plural marriage WAS practiced within the church, the justification that the church used was that it was “ESSENTIAL” to one’s salvation, not just optional. You look in the historic writings of the LDS church, read in Journal of Discourses, and that’s exactly what you’ll find. Today, of course, most of that ikky history has been expunged and sanitized by the church and what it currently teaches. How convenient. I still reel when I think about Gordon Hinkley telling Larry King that the teaching of “as man is, God once was, as God is, man may become” is something that, to quote or at least paraphrase Hinkley, was something that we didn’t teach nor was it ever really taught, he said. And he acted like it was something he’d never heard before. What intellectual dishonesty that was! I’m sorry, but the LDS church is really all about, as I said before that “when you are a true believer in Mormonism, BELIEVING is what it is ALL about” because that’s what the members do: they believe what they are told. And even when their prophet tells them that something they’ve been teaching for a hundred years is something that he doesn’t know was ever taught in the church, then the members all line up like sheep and agree that I guess we never taught that. THIS is ignorance and cultish conformity at the highest level. The Mormons worship the Mormon church. The Mormon church IS their god.

    • rae on May 18, 2009 at 14:42

    2 of 6, I apreciate the time and effort you have taken to respond and to make your thoughts and reasons clear. And I’m sure there is absolutely nothing wrong with us, at this point, agreeing to disagree as I fear the longer this exchange continues the further we will get from the purpose of this discussion – the novel, which shall be added to my ‘to read list’ and no doubt read with interest eventually. I certainly hope I have not caused any offence in the veiws I have expressed and would like to re iterate that I totally respect your right to believe whatever you wish and look forward to the same level of respect being returned regardless of whether my personal beliefs are seen to be misguided or not.
    ( I would also like to re iterate that I agree with caribousmom in the concerns expressed in connection with the practise of polygamy, and also assure anyone reading that I am definately an only wife and will be remaining so ;o)

    • Wendy on May 21, 2009 at 08:16

    Rae and 2 of 6: Thanks for having this dialogue. I believe it is important for people to have these kinds of discussions…whether agreement can be found or not, being able to listen to the other side and putting forth one’s thoughts without personal attacks is what breeds understanding. I am a firm believer in a person’s right to choose for themselves what to believe…although I am a Christian, I am willing to listen to other viewpoints. The ONLY issue I have with fundamentalist Mormonism is the forcing of young girls to marry adult men. It is important to me to distinguish between the fundamentalist view and the more mainstream church (as Rae points out, she does not practice pologamy and never would). Every religion has its fanatics and extremists…

    • Jana on October 8, 2009 at 20:11

    I just finished reading this book, the last 75 pages were kind of anti-climactic, and the story jumped around so much that I had a hard time keeping up. It might have worked better as separate stories within the same book, rather than jumping around.

    Regarding LDS, I’m not LDS, but I grew up with many, and worked for a few. All people who looked to the church to find a compass for their life, a way to live as better human beings. But I also know people who have left the church and are quite bitter about their experiences. But honestly – I could say the same about any church. There is hypocracy in the Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, and mega-independent mall-like churches too. Every organization says they are the ‘true’ path to God. Every one of those churches accepts the Old Testament as the holy word of God. And the Old Testament includes plural marriage. And every one of those organizations has made public statements in the present and past against homosexuality, causing schisms within the congregations.

    But here’s where I disagree with the TBM’s (true believer mormons) about why plural marriage was ended. It didn’t work. Look at how unhappy people were in the Old Testament – all those horny men who wanted the ‘pretty young thing’ wives – whether David, Solomon, etc. Lots of drama in their lives because of jealousy, favored children, etc.

    Even without the pressure of the US Government, the Mormons would have stopped plural marriage eventually, because so many would have eventually rebelled against it – because plural marriage made people miserable. The character of Kelly Dee said it best (I’m paraphrasing here): eliminating plural marriage probably saved LDS from itself. Otherwise there would have been a massive schism, especially in the 20th century as the LDS members had more contact with the outside world, as mass communications improved.

    Finally, while I was emotionally touched by all the unhappiness among the wives (and their children). But what REALLY chapped my hide was reading about the WICS checks arriving at the Mesadale post office! I have read this happens in FLDS and other break off groups too. They also have all their kids at hospitals and use medicaid, use food stamps, etc. For a group of people that believes in religious freedom (from government internvention), they sure don’t seem to mind taking the tax payers welfare money.

    I’m fine with having a passel of kids, but I think parents should pay for them out of their own pocketbooks, not my taxpayer dollars. I’m hoping FLDS gets shut down on welfare fraud / fathers not paying child support. It would be similar to Al Capone going to the slammer because he didn’t pay taxes on his ill gotten gains.

    • Wendy on October 11, 2009 at 07:23

    Jana: Your comment is a good example of why this is a good book for discussion 🙂 Thanks for weighing in on the controversy.

  5. You know what it happens in Israel with the orthodox Jews. The Jewish fundamentalist take money from the people of Israel too. With all the children. It happens in every religion. Christian, muslim, Jewish what ever. I just had to put my two cents in too. I will be commenting back after I read the entire book which I am enjoying. I wish I had read a year ago to enjoy the conversation being current.

    • Wendy on August 15, 2010 at 08:22

    Carolina: Glad to invite you to the discussion at any time. I hope you’ll come back after you’ve finished the book and give us your final thoughts!

    • Brit on September 24, 2011 at 00:28

    I have almost finished reading the book. I too enjoyed the historical element. (I found it more readable than ’27th wife.’
    I am also ex-mainstream LDS and am fascinated by plural marriage. I dislike the way the LDS church preached polygamy with great gusto in the early days, but but now tries to sweep it under the carpet, or make weak excuses for it. I squirmed listening to Gordon B Hinckley try to distance the church from it. I’m glad these tough questions are being asked at last.
    I now believe Joseph Smith introduced polygamy in order to cover up his adultery and womanizing ways. It is tragic that so many people’s lives are ruined by the idea that they must enter this practice in order to get to heaven.

    • Wendy on September 26, 2011 at 08:29

    Brit: I think the author did a really credible job at uncovering the history behind the practice. Like you, I can’t help but feel cynical about the motivations of Joseph Smith – if he could convince everyone that this was God’s will, then his having multiple wives would be seen as acceptable.

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