A couple of weeks ago, I came to the end of the fascinating book The 19th Wife, written by David Ebershoff. It was a big, sweeping read – part history lesson about Ann Eliza Young and the roots of Mormon polygamy or plural marriage; part contemporary murder mystery and part exposé of current First Latter Day Saints’ sects in the USA that still practise plural marriage to this day.
The novel contains two parallel stories: a modern-day murder mystery set in a mysterious sect that practises polygamy, and a historical saga based on the real life of Ann Eliza Young, the nineteenth wife of Brigham Young, Prophet and Leader of the Mormon Church in the late 1800s.
The contemporary story is a gritty one in which Jordan returns to visit his mother in jail after she has been accused of killing her husband. His mother is a plural wife (number 19) and Jordan, her gay son, was expelled from his community, a secretive sect still practising polygamy, six years previously.
The story of Ann Eliza Young charts the story of her parents’ plural marriage, the foundation of the Mormon Church and how she fought for her freedom from her powerful husband. She started the crusade that ended polygamy and ulitmately – so some say – saved the Mormon Church.
It is a compelling read as it raises questions about the effects of polygamy on all those involved: the loneliness and objectification of the women, the brutalization of the men and, above all, the abuse and neglect of the children of plural marriages. The book also examines faith, why we believe, and what happens when you lose your faith.
It is an entertaining, fascinating, dark and compelling novel. I found it engrossing – and yet chilling too in the way it examines the broader landscape of faith, and the spiritual crimes committed in the name of religious conviction.