The 19th Wife

by David Ebershoff
ages: adult
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

11 thoughts on “The 19th Wife

  1. I recently browsed around Amazon and was recommended this book based on previous purchases. I am not that interested in books with religious themes (whether they are pro or con or whether they are about one or another religion) if the religious theme is the only thing carrying the book. But this sure sounds interesting.

    On another note: In Danish literary circles, the hottest debate these days are where authors draw the line between fact or fiction! Interesting.

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  2. An excellent review Melissa! While I do recommend the book, like you I had my large reservations about it. I, too, was concerned with the fiction/truth blurred line and like you also mentioned how it can be compared to the Da Vinci Code. I met Ebershoff before reading the book and fully admit that meeting him colored my perception of the book. He was just one dang of a nice guy. It was hard to read some of the character portrayls at times but overall it was a really interesting read.

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  3. I really like your review. I often think about this issue (fact/fiction – blurred lines) and also how my belief system comes into play when I’m reading a book – regardless of the topic.

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  4. Louise — I’m glad I sparked your interest in the book. It’s religious, but not only religious. And it’s very probing about the meaning of belief and faith.

    Natasha — Thanks. I appreciate your comment. I’m looking forward to the author signing; I’m curious to hear what he has to say. I know the character portrayals were hard, but I guess I wonder how “accurate” they are… I suppose that’s something we’ll never know.

    Heather — I agree: it is interesting how our belief systems come into play when we read. I don’t often think about it, but maybe I should.

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  5. “good drama isn’t always good history”
    I completely agree! I also have a big issue with fact being too blurred with fiction in historical books. I love historical fiction but when it’s too much fantasy and not enough fact, I get a little put off or like the book as pure entertainment but not treat it or the author as a serious contender for a spot among my timeless novels.

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  6. Interesting review! I try to remember that I am reading fiction, so I read everything with that in mind, but I know lots of people that get mad about incorrect facts in fiction novels… So, this could have some interesting responses from people! I always tell people that you don’t know the truth until you have read non-fiction, and even then you should read several different examples!

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  7. Excellent review! One of the main points in new historical literary theory is that history and literature is subjective. Our personal experiences and beliefs are such a deeply ingrained part of us that they cannot be separated from us and so will leak through in our writing. Likewise they come through in our reading of a book. Truly there is little “fact” in history because it will always be colored by the perceptions of the writer and the reader.

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  8. I am a big fan of historical fiction, though sometimes it's hard to remember I'm reading fiction and not a 100% true account. I really think it's helpful when authors, especially those who write of actual historical figures and events, write an author's note at the end explaining where that line between fact and fiction lies. Because sometimes we don't know why events took place, or the motive behind a certain person's action, and it's interesting to see how an author came up with the theories they did.

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  9. I just finished listening to an audio unabridged version – 19 hours and 15 cds. It took me 2 weeks of driving to finish. Four different voices spoke throughout the book, which really helped to separate the stories and centuries. I found it very interesting and immediately came to the internet to find out more about the author and the blurred line of history and fiction. The beginning history and the effect of the faith on so many people was a very minor part of the overall story and yet is also interesting. These voices will haunt me for awhile as I digest the end of the stories. Overall with the length of the book I doubt I could have finished it, but the voices made it much more interesting.

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