I’ve read a number of books on religion in general and the Mormon Church in particular. This includes Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven as well as an autobiography written by a woman who was molested by her father and eventually left the Mormon Church. It’s a fascinating religion, in part, because it’s origins are so recent. Even though the stories in the bible are just as fantastical as the Mormon prophesies, the Mormon Church began in modern history. The stories are easier to disprove.
I think I first saw The 19th Wife (2009) by David Ebershoff on a bookshelf somewhere, and it immediately caught my attention. When I saw it was available on Kindle, I picked it up immediately.
The 19th Wife interweaves the stories of two women who lived over a hundred years apart; they are both the 19th wives of high-ranking members of their church. One is Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, one of the Mormon Church’s founders. And the other is BeckyLyn, the wife of one of the “Firsts” a modern-day sect that broke from the Mormon Church when the Mormons officially discontinued polygamy. It is now located in Mesadale—a small, hot town in the middle of nowhere, Utah.
BeckyLyn’s story is told through her son, Jordan Scott, a twenty-year old “Lost Boy.” Jordan was kicked out of Mesadale as a young teenager to make room for all the lecherous old men in the community to marry all of the young girls. When Jordan Scott reads that his mother has been arrested for the murder of his father, he makes the difficult return trip to Utah and Mesadale to try to figure out what has happened.
Ann Eliza Young’s story begins with the description of how her parents joined Joseph Smith’s new church, met, and married, back in the late 1800’s. There is detail about the beginnings of the church, the persecution it faced, and their eventual move to Utah. Ann Eliza Young’s parents were also one of the first ones to be convinced that polygamy was God’s will. She goes into devastating detail about the toll it took on her mother when her father took another wife. Even though Brigham Young was her parents’ friend and knew her throughout her life, she eventually became one of his many wives.
This book had a lot going on, but it really worked for me. The history of the Mormon Church and it’s acceptance of polygamy is fascinating. The modern day polygamous sects where women and children live in isolated ignorance are also fascinating. On top of that, there is a murder mystery and Jordan Scott’s struggles in coming to terms with where he came from. Both the historical context and Jordan Scott’s perspective help to explain how polygamy could occur—both back then and today.
It’s easy for me to say that I would never put up with something as ridiculous, sexist, and annoying as polygamy (I really don’t like to share). But if it’s all I knew, if all the people I’ve been taught to trust since I was born tells me that God commands it, and if I had no other security or place to go, it would be very difficult to defy.