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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The 19th Wife

The 19th Wife
by David Ebershoff

This book is a combination of two stories. The first – and larger – story is that of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Mormon prophet Brigham Young, in the late 1800s. The second story is that of Jordon Scott, a former member of a modern day polygamist cult, whose father was supposedly killed by his own 19th wife, Jordan’s mother. Sound confusing? It’s really not!

The structure of the story IS unusual though. Not only are the two stories intertwined, but additional “sources” are scattered throughout the book: excerpts from memoirs, Wikipedia entries, letters, etc.

I really enjoyed his book. It is well written and caught my attention very quickly. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to each of the characters as the story progressed. I especially liked the subtle way that the author linked the two stories to each other. In both cases the author just "jumps into" the story without giving the reader any background. At times I felt a bit confused, like maybe I had missed some vital piece of information, but I hadn't; the author basically brings you along and provides info through the narrative, rather than through long, expository paragraphs. It works well, once you get used to it.

The structure did cause me some difficulty though. I loved the way the stories and “sources” were intertwined – the problem for me was what to believe is true. Since I know very little about the history of the Mormon Church I couldn’t judge the validity of the events (historical and personal) in the Ann Eliza portion of the book. The format of the book leads the reader to treat this book as more “history” and less “historical fiction” in my opinion. The author does clarify his intentions in the Afterword but I’m not sure this is enough.

Rather than trolling the internet looking for answers I decided to email another blogger who I know is a Mormon (also known as Latter Day Saints, or LDS). Luckily for me she was also reading this book AND she was willing to answer my questions. Below are a few excerpts from our email exchange.

From me:
Thank you for your willingness to help! I'm so glad you're reading this too. It will make it much easier to discuss. ... As far as the LDS go, I know just about nothing - hence my questions. ... I am really enjoying the writing and the stories so far. My questions have to do with the factual basis of the Ann Eliza story. What is the LDS view of her and does it match up with her representation in the book? Do you know if the "facts" about her parents and their lives are based in truth? I know that the "documents" he presents are not real but as I understand it, they are meant to represent the type of documents you could find. Do they seem to you to present accurate information, or do they contradict what you know of LDS history? I'm thinking specifically of Chauncey Webb - as you read, I'd like to hear your thoughts on him.

Also, I understand that the LDS are against plural marriage now. Did they give a reason for their change in belief? Since their current stand is in contradiction to their previous one, how is this explained?

When my book club read The Da Vinci Code a while back it caused HUGE drama in our group. The non-Catholic members believed basically everything Dan Brown said about the Catholic Church while the Catholic members hated the book just on principle. Having a Catholic background ... I was able to point out the difference between facts and theories, truth and sensationalism, in the book. My concern in reading The 19th Wife is that due to my lack of knowledge about LDS, I could end up believing things that are not true just like the gals in my book club did. See my dilemma?!

Again, thanks for agreeing to help me out with this. I look forward to comparing notes with you!

Natasha’s response:
To tell you the truth, church history is really, really broad! I myself am ignorant of much of its detailed background. The LDS church has many scholars that make their careers studying church history. I'm afraid I don't have any good answers for your questions.

A full biography of Brigham Young can be found here. I have to tell you the truth that I'm just as ignorant about Eliza Ann as you are. I searched and searched and could not find any statement about the LDS view of Eliza Ann Young.


I also searched for information about her parents but couldn't find anything beyond a few basic, he was a blacksmith, etc. The LDS church has preserved all of its history and is available in its archives. They are currently digitizing their documents (a decade long project), but unfortunately it makes it hard to find info online. No news is good news?


Here are some links for you about the church's current view of polygamy:
Background of polygamy and is current view
Interview with Gordon B. Hinckley, past president and prophet


Hmm . . . I'm thinking I should be asking as many questions as you!
Again, these are just excerpts from the emails we exchanged, but I think you get the general idea.

If you’d like to read Natasha’s review of this book click here. I’m grateful to Natasha for her willingness to answer my questions – thank you!

I must say, I really did enjoy this book. I’ve already recommended it to a number of people. But I do caution you to read it as a work of fiction, not as historical fact. It will make you – and everyone you discuss it with – much happier.

Thank you to TLC Book Blog Tours for the chance to review this book! To read other reviews and also thoughts from the author be sure to check out the other blog stops scheduled for this month.

Wednesday, Oct. 15th: Maw Books

Friday, Oct. 17th: Reading, ‘Riting, and Retirement

Monday, Oct. 20th: She Is Too Fond Of Books

Tuesday, Oct. 21st: Age 30 - A Year in Books

Thursday, Oct. 23rd: A High and Hidden Place

Monday, Oct. 27th: It’s All About Books

Tuesday, Oct. 28th: Musings of a Bookish Kitty

Thursday, Oct. 30th: Books on the Brain

Monday, Nov. 3rd: The Cottage Nest

Tuesday, Nov. 4th: B&B ex libris

Wednesday, Nov. 5th: Anniegirl1138

Thursday, Nov. 6th: The Tome Traveler

Friday, Nov. 7th: Educating Petunia

Monday, Nov. 10th: The Literate Housewife

Wednesday, Nov. 12th: Diary of an Eccentric

Friday, Nov. 14th: Book Chase


Anonymous said...

I just finished this book and thought it was great, too.

Rebecca Reid said...

I'm also LDS and I found the concept of this book interesting, although probably not my type of book.

I'm in the midst of a cultural biography of Joseph Smith (first Mormon prophet) and the researcher, who is also LDS, has mentioned Ann Eliza Young's memoirs. Apparently, she's written about events of the 1830s, when she hadn't yet been born, and much of what she claims for that time period hasn't be proved by any other evidence. So as a Mormon, I guess you could say I'd not trust her memoirs very much.

As for polygamy, the practice was stopped because it became against the law, as Utah was petitioning for statehood. My understanding is that the belief itself is still a part of the religion: i.e., when a spouse has died, the man can be married to second wife; since we believe marriages continue beyond this life, that would technically be "polygamy" in the next life.

However, I don't expect the church would adopt polygamy (for living persons) as a practice even if it were not against the law. The religious laws and practices we live with are for our day: we don't slaughter sacrifices as did Moses, we don't have multiples spouses as did Abraham, we don't silence woman as did Paul. But we still believe those scriptures.

I hope that makes sense in the context of your questions.

Rebecca Reid said...

I meant, "we still believe those scriptures were correct at the time they were given."

Dreamybee said...

Thank you for the "IT'S FICTION!!!" disclaimer. I hate reading something that I think is true only to find out later that it's fiction. (I'm looking at you, Memoirs of a Geisha). I'm embarrassed to admit that I did this with Life of Pi. Looking back, it seems pretty obvious that this was fiction, but, for some reason, I had it in my head that it was a true story as I was reading it. D'oh!

On an unrelated note, I ran across this NPR story about Les Fleurs de la Memoire I don't know if you've heard it already, but it's a very touching piece.

Anonymous said...

I'm really glad to hear your thoughts on this one! I think anything in the historical genre genre can get confusing, especially when the characters are so well known.

Anonymous said...

Heather - you were so smart to ask questions of a current member of the Church of LDS! I read Natasha's review earlier in the week, and really appreciated her (and your) comparison to *The DaVinci* code.

One of the historically accurate things I found most intriguing is that there is no record of Ann Eliz's death. I've done a lot of genealogical research in my own family lines, and I know how frustrating this can be!

I read/reviewed *The 19th Wife* also. I found it to be well-written, and enjoyed the various voices he used.

Perhaps stating "this is a work of fiction" in a foreward (instead of the afterword) would be a good re-working for when the paperback is issued.

Anna said...

I'm going to start this book as soon as I finish the one I'm reading currently. The structure sounds interesting. I understand what you mean about trying to weed out the fact from the fiction. It can be difficult at times.

Diary of an Eccentric

Anonymous said...

I just finished The 19th Wife and found it fascinating. I love reading about other faiths, and I was particularly into the historical narrative. I could have done without the present day narrative.

I love reading books that use multiple "sources"--real or fictitious. I like that diary excerpts, letters, emails, etc. broke up the text.

I did find the book a bit dense. Some days I would read and read and feel like I wasn't getting anywhere. Though, that could be due to the fact that I put it on hold to read Twilight--and we all know what a page turner that is.

Thanks for the recommendation!

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