Friday, March 13, 2009

Ripped from the headlines?

The 19th Wife: A Novel
by David Ebershoff

When I heard what this novel was about, I immediately wanted to read it. The reason is that I've been so intrigued by news accounts of groups like the polygamous fundamentalists featured in this novel. For me, it was like a window into another world.

The story opens with 20-year-old Jordan Scott reading the news online. He sees a photo of a woman being placed into a police car and suddenly realizes that it's his mother! He hasn't seen her since she and his father left him by the side of the highway with $17 dollars in his pocket at the age of 14. You see, Jordan was raised in Utah in a polygamous Mormon sect--an extremist offshoot of the contemporary Mormon Church. Jordan's mom was #19 of his dad's 25 or so wives, and Jordan was raised with about 100 siblings. It's a very different upbringing. Sadly, at the age of 14, Jordan was excommunicated for a non-existent offence, and cast out from his home, family, and the life he'd known. But he's a survivor, and he's made a life for himself in LA.

Seeing that his mother has been arrested for the murder of his father, Jordan realizes that he must return home and face his past. He goes to visit his mother in jail, and she tells him, "I didn't do it!" and begs for his help. With all the conflicted feelings you would imagine, Jordan begins his own investigation into the murder case, and for the first time in years has contact with his former life. Despite the pain this sometimes brings him, he makes friends along the way, and they're a fascinating and diverse group of allies.

This contemporary murder mystery would be more than enough story for your average novel, but in this case, it's only half of it. For the chapters about Jordan and the murder mystery alternate with another story. It's the fictionalized memoir of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, one of the early founders of the Mormon Church. The very formation of the Church, right through its first several decades, are seen through Ann Eliza's eyes. She was a real historic character who did write a memoir about her life, marriage to the decades-older Young, eventual divorce, and crusade against polygamy in the Church.

Ebershoff has woven these two tales together magnificently. I can't claim to have known much about the Mormon faith, its history, or any current issues in the religion, but I was equally fascinated by both stories being told. I realize there's a limit to what a person can learn from a fictional work, but this novel appears to have been meticulously researched. (There's a great author's note at the end.) It's a hefty book, but well-written, compelling, exotic, and more than anything one hell of a story.

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