Review: The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

The 19th WifeThe 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recently, I have been seeing a lot of reviews and advertisements for ‘The 19th Wife’ popping up everywhere. Maybe this has something to do with the new movie coming out about Brigham Young, because this book has been out for quite some time. Whatever the reason, after this book popped up on my recommendations for the umpteenth time, I was intrigued. I downloaded the Audible version and started listening.

This book was absolutely fascinating! Aside from the stories being told, the format was unique. This book blends fact and fiction, telling the present-day fictional story of Jordan, a young man whose mother has recently been charged with the murder of her polygamist husband, alongside the journals and “non-fiction” accounts of early Mormon polygamists. Most notable is the story of Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young’s “nineteenth” wife. Of course, how accurate these accounts of early Mormon polygamy in the United States are is a source of great controversy.

As I was listening to this book, my heart went out to the women in these stories. It is hard to imagine having to put up with some of the stuff that these ladies did. The control over their lives was absolute. As a mother of two young girls, I cannot imagine the horror of having daughters not much older than mine being forced to marry dirty old men.

More than anything, this book sheds light on terrible abuses committed in the name of religion. I am always amazed when I read these types of stories and see the lengths that some people will go to, just because some nut job “said it was so”. It seems laughable, but there is no doubt that it was very real to these “believers”.

As this story unfolds, I gained a better understanding of exactly how absolute the control of the “Prophet” was. The manipulations and crimes were multiple. Even if somebody wanted to escape their nightmarish existence, they had very little knowledge – if any – of how to do so or any means to get out. These communities are, by design, the perfect breeding grounds for victimization.

While the fictional plight of Jordan and his mother was entertaining and suspenseful, I found myself more strongly drawn to the historical aspects. Ann Eliza’s story was captivating. She was such a strong and rebellious woman, born into an unthinkable situation. I could not quit listening to her account of life growing up in a polygamist community.

Aside from Ann Eliza’s personal story, the history of polygamy in the United States and it’s ties the Mormon Church were very enlightening. This book did a fabulous job of “connecting the dots” for me, as I admittedly haven’t read much on the topic. Although the present-day Mormon Church has renounced the practice of polygamy, it remains a shameful part of the church’s past.

In the meantime, that shame and unwillingness to speak openly about this practice has fostered an environment where this practice is allowed to continue. It seems that the church and the government are content to look the other way and pretend that this practice is not still thriving in the shadows. As a result, the Mormon Church and law enforcement have inadvertently created an environment that actually perpetuates the cycle of abuse in these cult communities.

From start to finish, this was a captivating read. I was completely absorbed in this story. I highly recommend this book. I only wish that I had known about it years ago.

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