Monday, January 3, 2011

The 19th Wife - David Ebershoff

And now, an LDS perspective on a controversial novel.  My thanks to Clare James, a friend, fellow bibliophile, and well-read woman, for consenting to give this guest review.

Summary:  Faith, I tell them, is a mystery, elusive to many, and never easy to explain.

Sweeping and lyrical, spellbinding and unforgettable, David Ebershoff’s The 19thWife combines epic historical fiction with a modern murder mystery to create a brilliant novel of literary suspense.

It is 1875, and Ann Eliza Young has recently separated from her powerful husband, Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon Church. Expelled and an outcast, Ann Eliza embarks on a crusade to end polygamy in the United States. A rich account of a family’s polygamous history is revealed, including how a young woman became a plural wife.

Soon after Ann Eliza’s story begins, a second exquisite narrative unfolds–a tale of murder involving a polygamist family in present-day Utah. Jordan Scott, a young man who was thrown out of his fundamentalist sect years earlier, must reenter the world that cast him aside in order to discover the truth behind his father’s death.

And as Ann Eliza’s narrative intertwines with that of Jordan’s search, readers are pulled deeper into the mysteries of love and faith. (Summary and Image from )

Hey fellow readers, my name is Clare James. I’m a reading addict, literally ripping my hands off books to take care of my family. I’m not a writing addict, so be kind. 

My Review:  Two stories over a century apart weave the horrifying tale of polygamy’s oppression. As one ostracized modern-day boy faces his past to absolve his accused mother from murder, he discovers Ann Eliza’s legacy. Ann Eliza, born into firm believers of polygamy, becomes the face of polygamy’s abolition. She chronicles the invisibility women feel, yet the brain-shaping way leaders keep them in place. Deeply insightful is the author’s description of Brigham Young’s hidden thoughts as he deals with Ann Eliza’s betrayal of faith. The standpoint that she unknowingly saved the LDS church’s existence is new to me, and worth the read to get context for that viewpoint.

For the LDS reader, myself included, this book proposes some challenges. Written as historical fiction, I am of the opinion that it is more history than fiction. I believe Ebershoff nails several truths concerning the fluidity of history and the inability to know people’s hearts. Obviously the LDS religion today does not tolerate polygamy. The LDS are actually the faction, the sect that broke off from the original church beliefs.

The brilliance of this book is the continuous whirlwind exploration of the power of faith. Faith is intangible yet more forceful than the threat of death, because it affects what we believe exists after this life. When polygamy is all one knows, and the promise of eternal happiness is given, people today still believe that’s enough and live it with faith.

My Rating:  3.5 stars. This book sucked me in, but I couldn’t quite bump it to 4 stars for several reasons. The author’s historical fiction creation was unique but he simply took facts and reworded them. I got bugged by thinking to myself, “Are these actual documents?” For a fictional book, it was written too much like fact.

For the sensitive reader: Also the sensitive reader may want to avoid this book based on repetitive offensive expletives and several vulgar scenes. Not a personal fan of such language, I will admit it portrays the anger and inability of abused children to express emotion.

Sum it up: The 19th Wife delves into this buried lifestyle, sharing polygamy’s history and current conditions in a readable, train-wreck fascination way.

Also reviewed by Jeannette Katzir, an author and guest reviewer.  Since her review posted in November, I have received a few emails about why a blog made of primarily LDS reviewers would choose to review a book that may or may not be an accurate representation of church beliefs or church history.  The short answer is that I decided a long time ago not to dictate what books our reviewers or guest reviewers chose to read.  However, in an effort to give a more well-rounded perspective, I asked one of my well-read LDS friends to give her opinion of the book.


Teresa said...

This is a fantastic review. I've been thinking about reading this one for awhile. I appreciate the honesty and perspective your review offers.

Anonymous said...

great review! thanks for sharing

treen said...

"The LDS are actually the faction, the sect that broke off from the original church beliefs."

I'm sorry - what?

Sheila Deeth said...

Interesting. And a really interesting review. Thanks.

c3t said...

Thanks for the comments! Treen, as I mentioned, history can be fluid and subjective. However, I am of the opinion that it is well-recorded that Joseph Smith, the original founder of the LDS church, promoted, lived and believed polygamy to be a fundamental of God's church. A HUGE doctrinal change was implemented in order for Utah to be accepted as a state of the United States of America. So which is the sect? The church who held to Joseph's doctrine or the one who changed it? Respectfully, Clare

treen said...

I know this is a little late to respond, but here goes anyway.

I don't believe the LDS Church instituted a doctrinal change when we stopped polygamy. A doctrinal change, in my mind, would be that Joseph Smith said that polygamy was a good thing and subsequent leaders recanted that and said it was wrong. This was not the case. President Woodruff did not say that polygamy was suddenly wrong - he said that God no longer required the members of the Church to practice it. That's totally different. It was an administrative and procedural change, not a doctrinal change.

Administrative and procedural changes happen as the people of the Church need them to for whatever reason to most effectively manage the Church. That doesn't mean previous practices were bad or wrong - they're just shifted to meet the needs of the people at that time.

Polygamy is still a fundamental part of our doctrinal structure and our history. We just don't DO it right now.

If the current mainstream LDS Church is the break-off and possibly no longer valid (??), in which church do you believe the true religion and practices reside? I've never heard this perspective from anyone before - I'm completely curious. Thanks!

c3t said...

It is not only no longer "required", but members are ex-communicated if they practice it. In my mind, this is a docrtinal change, but perhaps to you it is not. Do you think polygamy is bad or wrong, or is it acceptable to you?

I acknowledge that my viewpoint may differ from other members of the LDS church. As far as my personal beliefs, I do think polygamy is wrong and is a part of LDS religious history but not part of current doctrinal structure. This does not mean that my faith is weak, simply my own conclusions after study and prayer.

May I add that belief and faith are very personal and I am not trying to tell other people what they must believe. I'm just sharing my own viewpoint. Thanks for the discussion, I am interested in other LDS perspectives on this. Best, Clare

Sally T. said...

Way after the fact, obviously, but to add my comment to this conversation - polygamy is no longer REQUIRED. Even when it was in practice, it was a calling - not everyone could take multiple wives, only those who the leadership called under the direction of the Spirit.

Also, polygamy COULD one day be reinstated. It was not recanted, it was not revoked, it is simply no longer practiced. It could well be brought back in to practice.

All things had to be restored when the Gospel was restored. To say that "polygamy is wrong" seems than to say it is no longer practiced. It was necessary that it be restored so that all things from all dispensations would take place in the last dispensation. It's somewhat upsetting that the Church doesn't explain this more. You can find commentary on the subject by earlier General Authorities.

About the book: At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, I hated it. Foul language, messed up facts, fiction presented as history... Hated it. That's why I didn't write a review when asked. I knew it would have a great deal of bias.


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