Monday, September 07, 2009

110 (2009 #35). The 19th Wife

by David Ebershoff;
read by Kimberly Farr, Rebecca Lowman, Arhur Morey, and Daniel Passer


This book intertwines the story of Ann Eliza Webb Dee Young Denning, the 19th (or 27th or 52nd, depending on how you count) wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young, with a modern-day murder mystery set on a polygamous compound of “Firsts,” Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS), in Utah. The historical fiction part of the book is loosely based on Ann Eliza’s 1876 memoir, Wife No. 19 (available online), with a number of liberties taken with the real story. Ann Eliza actually sued Brigham Young for divorce and went around the country speaking about her life in polygamy, contributing indirectly to its eventual demise in the official Mormon church.

I found the parts of the book pertaining to Ann Eliza’s story the most interesting. They are presented in the form of supposed excerpts from her memoir, her father’s autobiography, Latter Day Saints (LDS) church archives, letters by her son and one brother, contemporary newspaper articles and interviews, even her mother’s, another brother’s, and Brigham Young’s diaries, and research by Ann Eliza’s descendent, Kelly Dee, supposedly a student at Brigham Young University working on her master’s thesis. In an endnote, author David Ebershoff makes it clear that “Although I am the author of these, they are fictional representations of what it’s like to spend time in the archives and online researching Ann Eliza Young, Brigham, and early LDS history. Many are inspired by an actual text or a kind of text.” Ann Eliza’s story is so fascinating that I was compelled to do research of my own to find out what was real and what was not in Ebershoff’s fiction.

The mystery centers around Jordan Scott, a 20 year old gay kicked out of the Firsts at age 14 (more because it was common to do so with the excess of boys in polygamous societies, as he hadn’t come out at that point). His mother is the 19th wife of a First, Jordan’s father, and she’s been accused of killing him. Jordan believes she is innocent and sets out to prove it. On his website, Ebershoff relates an incident while doing research for the book that ends up happening to Jordan too.

Ebershoff pulls together the two stories with Kelly, who meets and aids Jordan at one point. This modern-day story is less interesting than Ann Eliza’s tale, yet it provides insight into recent events involving FLDS.

I found it interesting that one of Ann Eliza’s brothers is implied to be the first leader and “Prophet” of the Firsts, and that no one knows what happened to Ann Eliza after her second memoir was published in 1908. The latter point is true and I think she was probably murdered by Firsts for resuming her fight against polygamy.

The unabridged audio version of this book was excellent. It employed four narrators, a young male for Jordan, a young female for Kelly, an older female for Ann Eliza, and an older male for most of the other voices in the book (Ann Eliza’s father, brother, son, Brigham Young, etc.). This made it quite easy to follow the weaving storylines.

An interesting interview with Ebershoff is here.

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