by David Ebershoff
First sentence: “In the one year since I renounced my Mormon faith, and set out to tell the nation the truth about American polygamy, many people have wondered why I ever agreed to become a plural wife.”
Three bloggers, whose opinions I respect and who are all members of my church, have read and reviewed this book. Two had positive reactions to it; the other didn’t. Needless to say, it made me curious, and when Lisa Munley of TLC Tours offered me the chance to be a part of another tour of The 19th Wife, I accepted.
My dad once said, when we were watching Chariots of Fire and I made some sort of comment about how amazing it was that something happened “that way”, that the movie makers were out to make a good drama. And good drama isn’t always good history.
That thought ran through my mind quite often as I read The 19th Wife.
The story is both basic and complex: it’s a historical “biography” of a real person, Ann Eliza Young, the 19th polygamous wife of Brigham Young. It’s also a murder mystery: Jordan Scott, who has been kicked out of the Firsts’ polygamous compound in Southern Utah, is drawn back to his home because his mother has been accused of killing his father. The two stories are interwoven and intertwined (in more ways than one) as the book unfolds.
The problem I had with the novel was not with its portrayal of the LDS church’s past, or its portraits of our first two prophets, its portrayal of an early form of something I hold sacred, or even its implied criticism of the church’s present stance on gay marriage. No, the thing that bothered me most was that the line between history and fiction was incredibly blurred. Chalk this up to Ebershoff being a great writer, or my being overly paranoid, but I couldn’t tell, especially in the Ann Eliza sections, where history stopped and fiction began. Which led me to wonder what Ebershoff’s motivations in writing the book were. To tell an interesting story, obviously, but what else? Why does he compare the early church to a modern polygamous cult? Is he exploring the nature of faith and belief? Or how far people will go in following an egomaniacal leader? Is he passing judgment on the LDS Church for its history with polygamy (or suppressing women), and comparing that, to a lesser degree, to its stance on gay marriage?
Am I just reading too much into this novel?
Okay, yeah, I know it’s a novel, and the job of a novel is to blur the lines between fact and fiction. But, while reading this, I also thought of the myriad of reactions to The Da Vinci Code when it first came out; a friend of mine told me to read it, because it was brilliant, because she’d never been told the truth before. I wondered if this book — for both members of our church and those who aren’t — might serve the same purpose. It’s not that we shouldn’t question our history, or that Ebershoff doesn’t have a right to rewrite it for us, but that it’s a fiction book, a story being told, and I wonder if people won’t take it as “truth”.
Which brings me to what I felt was the crux of the novel. It’s a “letter” from Ann Eliza’s son, Lorenzo Dee, to a fictional scholar, circa 1939:
Even so, history has one flaw. It is a subjective art, no less so than poetry or music. The true historian has two sources: the written record and the witness’s testimony. This is as it should be. Yet one is memory and the other is written, quite often, from memory. There is nothing to be done about this defect except acknowledge it for what it is. Yet this is your field’s Achilles’ heel. You say in your letter the historian writes truth. Forgive me, I must disagree. The historian writes a truth. The memoirist writes a truth. The novelist writes a truth. And so on. My mother, we both know, wrote a truth in The 19th Wife — a truth that corresponded to her memory and desires. It is not the truth, certainly not. But a truth, yes.
I should note that Ebershoff is coming to Wichita and will be at Watermark Books on June 9th at 7 p.m. (Hey, Bobby, can you help spread the word?) I am planning on going, not only because I was asked as part of this tour, but because now that I’ve finished the book, I’m quite curious to meet the author — and his motivations for writing this — behind this book.
For more opinions, head over to the other stops on the tour:
Monday, May 18: Hey, Lady! Whatcha Readin’?
Wednesday, May 20th: A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook
Thursday, May 21st: Becky’s Book Reviews
Tuesday, June 2nd: Biblioaddict
Thursday, June 4th: A Life in Books
Friday, June 5th: Bookgirl’s Nightstand
Monday, June 8th: Live and Let Di
Tuesday, June 9th: Ramya’s Bookshelf
Wednesday, June 10th: As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves
Thursday, June 11th: A Novel Menagerie
Monday, June 15th: The 3 R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness
Tuesday, June 16th: The Book Faery Reviews
Wednesday, June 17th: Shelf Life
Friday, June 19th: In the Shadow of Mt. TBR