Polygamy is evidently a hot topic. There is Big Love, an HBO series about a polygamous family. TBS has jumped on the bandwagon with Sister Wives. What does a cable TV-deprived person like myself do? That’s right, you guessed it – read a book!
David Ebershoff has written a fascinating novel which spans historical and contemporary polygamy in the United States, both in and out of the Mormon church. He uses two main narrators: Ann Eliza Young, the real-life “19th Wife” of Brigham Young, and twenty year old Jordan Scott, who was excommunicated and made homeless at the age of fourteen by the “Firsts”, a fundamentalist sect that practices polygamy.
Ann Eliza Young was well known in the late 1800s for her book “Wife No. 19” and her national speaking tours. In both, she recounted her former life in a plural marriage and advocated an end to polygamy. Ebershoff combines her writings with other historical documents to give a vivid picture of the early days of the Mormons and how polygamy became part of their religion.
This book has obviously been researched meticulously (check out the bibliography at the end) and Ann Eliza’s story by itself is well worth reading, not only because she was a wife of Brigham Young, but because she was raised in one of the first Mormon polygamous families. But Ebershoff is not content to write a mere historical novel: he intertwines Ann Eliza’s history with Jordan’s to give us a look at polygamy today.
Jordan Scott is funny, sarcastic, bitter and angry at the “Firsts” and his parents. Six years after his mother dumped him by the side of the road, he goes back to Utah because she is in jail, accused of murdering her husband. He doesn’t believe she is guilty of murder and searches for the truth behind his father’s death.
Along the way, you meet the people in Jordan’s life: Tom, a gay ex-Mormon who wants a connection with the church of his youth; Johnny, another excommunicated child barely in his teens; Kelly Dee, a Mormon scholar who ends up running a half-way house for runaways from polygamous families, and his mother, another 19th wife whose belief in her religion is unshaken by her arrest
That is what makes this book so enjoyable: the different perspectives you get from the many narrators. You see why plural marriages exist and what benefits there can be, as well as the emotional and financial cost to the children, the wives and even the husband. Even Brigham Young gets a word in.