Ebershoff novel about polygamy digs deep

Recent raids on fundamentalist Mormon polygamist sects in Texas and Canada have reinforced unfavorable public opinions about religious groups like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although the Mormon Church officially renounced polygamy in 1890, certain renegade sects have persisted in its practice, their refusal to abandon original Mormon doctrine leading to conflicts like the one at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, where more than 400 children were taken, however briefly, from their parents. When one sees the pictures of YFZ women wearing 19th-century costumes in 2008 or reads about sect leaders like convicted child rapist Warren Jeffs, it’s all too easy—even comfortable—to label Mormonism a cult and condemn its members as child-endangering lunatics.

A little more difficult and decidedly less comfortable is to try and approach the controversy from an angle of humanity and historical understanding.

David Ebershoff’s wonderful The 19th Wife sets out to do just that. By juxtaposing a historical narrative about the origins of LDS with a modern-day murder mystery at an LDS compound in the fictional town of Mesadale, Ariz., he manages to both educate readers about the organization’s complex past as well as depict the long-term damage adherence to polygamist doctrine has wrought on church followers since its inception.

“Polygamist doctrine” perfectly describes the cluster of issues with which Ebershoff’s characters grapple, whether that character is the gay son of a woman in a 21st-century polygamous marriage or a 19th-century Mormon mother wrestling with questions of faith. Though Ebershoff never shies from sensational or distasteful details (the bizarre “Endowment” ceremonies, the escaped child brides, the penchant of male church members for firearms and Internet porn), he consistently digs deeper into the lives of his characters to reveal the underlying desire for love and faith that drives them. Even his depiction of life in the household of infamous prophet Brigham Young—whose 50-odd wives queue at the supper table for two minutes of family business with their shared husband—reveals the desire for romantic or familial security behind the bizarre marital practice.

Like A.S. Byatt, whose brilliant novel Possession also split the narrative between time periods, Ebershoff uses a series of fictionalized documents to add depth and perspective to his tale. An autobiography of Brigham Young’s 19th “rebel” wife, Ann Eliza Young, provides the main narrative for the novel’s historically based chapters, supported by journal entries and newspaper editorials from her family members and foes. Ann Eliza did indeed marry and divorce Brigham, becoming a tireless crusader against polygamy in the late 1800s.

No doubt Ebershoff wishes to point out the irony that, more than a century later, women with far more freedom than Ann Eliza willingly remain with polygamist sects even as these institutions begin to implode. The modern-day portions of The 19th Wife use Internet-chat transcripts, college research papers and Wikipedia entries to support the murder-mystery narrative of a young man named Jordan Scott who is trying to prove his mother’s innocence in the shooting death of his polygamist father—all as if to suggest that, while technology has advanced, some things remain forever mired in the archaic.

“Why do they keep on believing all this crap?” Jordan fumes at one point, fed up with the beliefs he has long since rejected. “Why don’t they ask themselves—just once, that’s all it would take—why none of it makes sense?”

To its great credit, The 19th Wife, while never condoning polygamy, offers some thought-provoking answers to this question.