The 19th wife is two stories in one – or perhaps more. It’s a novel about polygamy, encompassing a historical fiction about Ann Eliza Young, one of the many wives of LDS church founder Brigham Young, as well as a contemporary story about a woman in a modern-day polygamous community who is accused of killing her husband.
The Ann Eliza Young story is true, though author Ebershoff has embellished her story (as told in her own memoir), fleshing it out with details and bringing in not just Ann Eliza’s voice but that of her father, her brother, Brigham Young, and a modern-day Mormon scholar studying Ann Eliza’s story in an attempt to grapple with the role of polygamy in early LDS history.
The contemporary story is narrated by a young man named Jordan who was kicked out of a polygamous sect as a teenager, and who is now trying to clear his mother of the charge of murdering his father. Jordan is an engaging narrator the reader can’t help sympathizing with: his mother is a bit more complicated, as a woman who is clearly victimized by yet also completely supportive of the polygamous sect in which she lives. While this part of the story is fiction, the world in which Jordan grew up does exist in many polygamous communities in the US today, and the depiction of that world in the pages of this novel is nothing short of chilling.
I found both contemporary and historical threads of the story compelling and interesting; they were neatly tied together not just by theme and subject matter but by the fact that during the contemporary story, Jordan meets up with the scholar who is studying Ann Eliza Young, whose papers make up part of the historical fiction. It’s a tightly woven book that left me thinking – not just about the obvious subject of polygamy, but about the deeper question (for me anyway) of what relationship religious groups today have to the more disturbing practices and outlandish ideas of their founders.