The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

This book is the fastest 600 pages I’ve ever read. I received the book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program and I have to admit that I was a little intimidated by its size. I am not a speed reader. I tend to dawdle – I re-read passages, linger over good descriptions and generally take my sweet time – but this book hooked me right from the start. I read the first 300 pages in a single sitting and was surprised at just how quickly it moved along.
The 19th Wife is a complicated braid of a story, reaching from today’s headlines back to the origins of the Mormon religion. It combines a modern-day murder mystery with the fictionalized account of a well-known plural wife and a wealth of “documents” telling her story. The research required would have been phenomenal and it could have been dry as dust. Instead, the mix of fact and fiction, narrative and document, cleverly tells a complex story in a very interesting way.
Jordan is a “lost boy”: raised in a fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints community known as The Firsts, at age 14 his mother and two church elders left him along the side of the highway to fend for himself. Six years later, his mother stands accused of his father’s murder. As Jordan struggles with his mixed emotions about his mother, her faith and her crime, we learn the story of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, early leader of the Mormon Church. Her story is historical fiction but based on historical fact. Ebershoff’s “documents” – fiction, but written in the style of actual historical documents – provide abundant details of her life, her marriage, and her crusade to end polygamy in the US.

Ann Eliza’s story is by far the meatier portion of the book. There is so much to tell! The history is compelling and you can’t help but draw parallels – Ann Eliza and Jordan, both victimized by their mother’s faith. Their mothers – both 19th wives – unable or unwilling to see the pain they are causing or change their course. A host of people, male and female, whose lives were shaped by the words of a prophet. Their world has changed very little in the hundred years between the families in this book.

The 19th Wife was a fabulous read and I am already recommending it to people I know. I expect to find it on my “Best of 2008” list at the end of the year. You can order your copy here.

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