I first read this book several years ago, before I started this blog, and although I remember enjoying it immensely, I couldn’t remember the details. It’s Ebershoff’s third novel and focuses on the practice of polygamy in the Mormon church by interweaving the stories of two women, separated by more than a century. One is Ann Eliza Young, the apostate former (nineteenth) wife of the early Mormon leader Brigham Young. Her lectures and writings, represented here by a fictional autobiography, helped to expose the reality of plural marriage and, ultimately, to abolish it in mainstream Mormon faith. In the present day, we meet BeckyLyn Scott, a member of a breakaway fundamentalist sect which preserves the practice of polygamy. BeckyLyn’s husband has been shot dead in his basement den and she, his nineteenth wife, has been arrested for murder. Her son Jordan, expelled from the community as a teenager, comes to believe that BeckyLyn is innocent; but how can he prove it? The stories of these two women intertwine in an absorbing tale of plural marriage, faith and family. To make matters even more interesting, events since the book’s publication have focused international attention on the community that must surely have inspired Ebershoff’s fictional Mesadale.
Mormons and Mormonism are familiar in America in a way that they aren’t in the UK. If an earnest missionary rings your doorbell here, they’ll most likely be a Jehovah’s Witness. In fact, I’m most familiar with the Church of Latter Day Saints through their sterling work in compiling genealogical resources, which are invaluable for family history research. So I found the historical part of Ebershoff’s novel particularly interesting, as Ann Eliza recounts the story of her parents and other members of the earliest community of Mormons, united around the charismatic figures of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. After Joseph Smith’s death at the hands of a mob in Carthage, Illinois, Brigham Young and the rest of his Saints move west, leaving their community in Nauvoo for the desert of Utah (NB: I originally wrote ’empty desert’, having thought that the region was entirely unpopulated, but LuAnn has very kindly pointed out in the comments that there were Ute and Navaho Native American groups living in the area). Here, the Saints establish a new city by the Great Salt Lake. Quite apart from its religious significance, this move is staggering on a logistical level – imagine the courage and vision it must have taken to pack up everything you have and, like the Gold Rush pioneers, to move out in search of a promised land that you’re not sure even exists!
For Elizabeth and Chauncey Webb, Joseph Smith’s teachings offer salvation in a world that has lost its way. When their beloved prophet announces that, in order to be truly saved, a man should take multiple wives, they initially struggle to accept it, but eventually force themselves to adapt. Their daughter Ann Eliza, born in 1844, grows up witnessing the strain between her mother and her father’s second wife – and, later, his other wives as well. As the new Mormon city rises up in Salt Lake City, Brigham Young (Smith’s successor) encourages plural marriage, urging men to expand their households with as many wives as they can support (and thus people the church). When Ann Eliza’s first marriage, to a feckless wastrel, falls apart, Brigham offers himself as her next husband. He already has numerous wives and is 67 years old to her 24, but family pressures force Ann Eliza to accept. She rapidly regrets her choice: she doesn’t love Brigham and she doesn’t see how a man with so many wives (more on that later) can genuinely split his time, attention and love in so many directions. Her faith has been failing for some time and, when her wellbeing is threatened, she manages to find Gentile friends to help her escape. Free at last from Brigham’s control, she begins to speak openly about the suffering she has experienced as a plural wife. In Ebershoff’s novel, this takes the form of ‘The Nineteenth Wife’, an autobiography whose chapters are woven through the novel.
In the present day, Jordan Scott has finally found his feet. At the age of fourteen, he was cast out from the fundamentalist ‘First Church of Latter Day Saints’, a fiercely patriarchal polygamist community in the remote, jealously-guarded town of Mesadale. His crime? Holding hands with his stepsister, Queenie, his best friend. Six years later, he has made a life for himself in California, but the old days come back with a bang when he sees newspaper reports that his mother has been arrested for shooting his father. Jordan doesn’t have any great love for his mother – she abandoned him at the prophet’s insistence, after all – but he feels compelled to find out what really happened. Did devout BeckyLyn Scott, who never once raised her voice against plural marriage – who, indeed, seems to have been content with her husband’s twenty-odd other wives – did she really pull the trigger? And, if not, who did? If he’s going to find out the truth, Jordan is going to have to do the one thing he really, really doesn’t want to do: go back to Mesadale. Interleaved with his story, and that of Ann Eliza, we also have glimpses of letters and papers linked to the PhD research of Kelly Dee, a student at the Brigham Young University, whose dissertation focuses on Ann Eliza Young.
As a novel, for the most part, it’s well-crafted and very engaging. As we learn more about Ann Eliza’s life and her marriage to Brigham Young, we get ever closer to knowing what really happened to Jordan’s father, and the paths of our various characters begin to cross. Yet I confess that the murder mystery was the part of the story which interested me least. Its denouement, especially, felt a bit limp. The book’s real interest lies in the truths that are very thinly veiled by its fiction. In his author’s note, Ebershoff notes that the included ‘historical documents’ (newspaper articles, interviews, testaments, and even Ann Eliza’s autobiography) were written by himself, but all were closely based on texts that really do survive. Ann Eliza did indeed write a memoir, which was titled Wife No. 19, and other early Mormons did write testaments and accounts of their lives: the letters in which Ebershoff’s fictional scholars beg for access to the LDS archives suggest how closely these early records are guarded. He has done his best to recreate the lives of Chauncey and Elizabeth Webb, and to pick his way through the contradictory rumours about Brigham Young to find the most plausible answers. There’s a question that runs through the novel like a leitmotif: how many wives did Brigham actually have? Ann Eliza, some sources suggest, wasn’t his nineteenth wife at all. She might have been his 27th. Or his 52nd. Scholars seem to agree that, as far as ‘proper’ wives are concerned, he ended up with 55, many of whom lived in the sprawling Lion House in Salt Lake City. As you can imagine, the building was the object of prurient interest from Gentile tourists, who would try to count the windows and guess at the number of women inside.
The historical part of the novel has clearly been very carefully researched and, as someone who knows next to nothing about Mormon history, it’s a useful introduction to the key events and personalities of the early church. But it came as a surprise to me to realise that the contemporary part of Ebershoff’s story also has a direct basis in reality. Obviously polygamist communities exist – I know that. But I gradually realised that his Mesadale (originally known as Red Creek) must be the town of Hildale (originally known as Short Creek). Both are on the Utah-Arizona border; both are, or were, home to secretive communities which practice plural marriage. Ebershoff’s characters call themselves the First Church of Latter Day Saints; Hildale was home to the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints. And this is where things get really interesting, because since Ebershoff’s novel was published, Hildale has been in the news a lot. It garnered a lot of attention in 2011, when long-standing rumours of child marriage led to the arrest and imprisonment of the sect’s ‘prophet’, Warren Jeffs. There was a resurgence of interest in 2017, when the church’s grip on the town had begun to fail, and the outside world was slowly breaking its way in. As you can imagine, the world’s press reported with fascination on this strange society, where women still wore pioneer-style dresses and grew their hair long; where a man’s status could be measured by the number of his wives; where vast, sprawling compounds were built to house enormous families. One of Jeffs’s wives recently claimed that he had ‘at least 79’ wives in total. And so now, as you read the conclusion of BeckyLyn’s story in The 19th Wife, you wonder how long it will be until Mesadale, too, must face its reckoning.
I do enjoy books which send me down rabbit-holes of research. This one accounted for several different deep-dives into Wikipedia and the wider internet: even then, you feel as if you’re only scratching the surface. That, I think, is the novel’s chief appeal for me, as I can’t say that Jordan really gripped me as a character. (Fun fact: Ebershoff’s dog is also called Elektra.) The main character here, the really gripping protagonist, is Mormon history, in all its rich and changeable variety.
There don’t seem to be any pictures of Brigham Young with his wives, so I have made do below with a photograph of Ira Eldredge, bishop of Sugar Ward, with his three wives. Even discounting the plural marriage angle, it’s an absolutely marvellous photograph in terms of costume and expressions.