The 19th Wife

The 19th Wife

3.6 358
by David Ebershoff

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Faith, I tell them, is a mystery, elusive to many, and never easy to explain.

Sweeping and lyrical, spellbinding and unforgettable, David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife combines epic historical fiction with a modern murder mystery to create a brilliant novel of literary suspense.

It is 1875, and Ann Eliza Young has recently separated fromSee more details below


Faith, I tell them, is a mystery, elusive to many, and never easy to explain.

Sweeping and lyrical, spellbinding and unforgettable, David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife combines epic historical fiction with a modern murder mystery to create a brilliant novel of literary suspense.

It is 1875, and Ann Eliza Young has recently separated from her powerful husband, Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon Church. Expelled and an outcast, Ann Eliza embarks on a crusade to end polygamy in the United States. A rich account of a family’s polygamous history is revealed, including how a young woman became a plural wife.

Soon after Ann Eliza’s story begins, a second exquisite narrative unfolds–a tale of murder involving a polygamist family in present-day Utah. Jordan Scott, a young man who was thrown out of his fundamentalist sect years earlier, must reenter the world that cast him aside in order to discover the truth behind his father’s death.

And as Ann Eliza’s narrative intertwines with that of Jordan’s search, readers are pulled deeper into the mysteries of love and faith.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
[Ebershoff's] great collage of a novel mixes the early history of the Mormon Church with the story of a modern-day murder in a breakaway Mormon cult. Readers of Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer's bestseller about the violent beginnings of Mormonism in the early 19th century and a double murder carried out by Mormon fundamentalists in 1984, will recognize this mingling of old and new. But Ebershoff has produced a different kind of book. For one thing, he's made up his modern-day adventure and fictionalized the historical record to shape his own ends. And more important, he's produced a novel that poses engaging challenges for the faithful in any denomination without discounting the essential value of faith. The result is a book packed with historical illumination, unforgettable characters and the deepest questions about the tenacity of belief.
—The Washington Post
Louisa Thomas
Despite the high hurdles Ebershoff has erected, the novel flows surprisingly well…In a less talented writer's hands, The 19th Wife could have turned into a Rube Goldberg contraption. But in the end the multiplicity of perspectives serves to broaden Ebershoff's depiction not only of polygamy, but also of the people whose lives it informs. And this gives his novel a rare sense of moral urgency.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

This sweeping epic is a compelling and original work set in 1875, when one woman attempts to rid America of polygamy. Ebershoff intertwines his tale with that of a 20th-century murder mystery in Utah, allowing the two stories to twist and turn into a marvelous literary experience. With such a sprawling tale to relate, a few narrators (Kimberly Farr, Rebecca Lowman, Arthur Morey and Daniel Passer) divide up the roles and deliver a solid, professional reading, true to Ebershoff's prose. A Random House hardcover (Reviews, June 23). (Sept.)

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Library Journal

Ebershoff's ( third novel-following The Danish Girl, a New York Times Notable Book soon to be adapted to film, and the New York Times best seller Pasadena-is both a chronicle of one woman's fight to end polygamy in the 19th century and a modern-day murder mystery. Unfortunately, having multiple narrators-Kimberly Farr, Rebecca Lowman, Arthur Morey, Daniel Passer-can be confusing; further, the CDs have neither disc number announcements at their start nor end-of-disc announcements at their conclusion. Recommended for medium-sized and large public libraries; academic libraries might also consider. [Audio clips available through library.booksontape.comand; the Random House hc, published in August, was a New York Times best seller.-Ed.]
—David Faucheux

Kirkus Reviews
Ebershoff (Pasadena, 2002, etc.) takes a promising historical premise and runs with it-perhaps a couple of dozen pages too long. He juxtaposes the world of modern polygamous families down on the remote Utah-Arizona line with the life of a junior wife of 19th-century Mormon patriarch Brigham Young. Junior in terms of both age and pecking order, Annie Young didn't much like the gig; she renounced life as a plural wife and broke from the church to publish a book about the horrors of polygamy. Her story inspired much antipathy among Young's anti-Mormon neighbors; Ebershoff borrows elsewhere from history to recapitulate a San Francisco newspaper's condemnation of Brigham Young as "a confidence man in the grand tradition of the hoodwinkers of the West." Meanwhile, in the present, a young Mormon man begins to examine the life he is falling away from, returning to the fictitious town of Mesadale, with its "few hundred houses now, warehouses for a family of seventy-five." (That would be Colorado City, Ariz., in real life-a place that has recently made national news for its polygamous customs.) Things are not as placid and well ordered as they seem in the red-rock plateau country. Young Jordan's mom, one of several wives, has apparently shot dear old dad as he was simultaneously gambling and recruiting new companionship online. As for Jordan-well, he's a mess, doing decidedly unsaintly things in order to keep body and soul together. Many histories intertwine in these pages, and many voices are heard from, ranging from the stately cadences of Victorian steel-nib prose to the most modern lingo. ("Manofthehouse2004: where in st george? / ALBIL: u no the Malibu Inn?") Apostasy and self-discovery ensue.Reminiscent of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose in scope and ambition, though the narrative sometimes drags. Elaine Koster/Elaine Koster Agency
From the Publisher
"Engrossing . . . remarkable . . . a book packed with historical illumination, unforgettable characters and the deepest questions about the tenacity of belief . . . The greatest triumph is the way [The 19th Wife] illuminates the larger landscape of faith." - The Washington Post Book World

"Part history class, part expose, part love story, The 19th Wife is thoroughly addictive. . . .[David] Ebershoff not only imparts a valuable lesson on religion, but spins a compelling tale that makes readers question the power of faith and what we believe and why." - USA Today

"Rarely has a work of fiction seemed more timely. . . . A page-turning epic. . . [a[ tour de force." - Vogue

“This exquisite tour de force explores the dark roots of polygamy and its modern-day fruit in a renegade cult...Ebershoff (The Danish Girl) brilliantly blends a haunting fictional narrative by Ann Eliza Young, the real-life 19th “rebel” wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young, with the equally compelling contemporary narrative of fictional Jordan Scott, a 20-year-old gay man…With the topic of plural marriage and its shattering impact on women and powerless children in today's headlines, this novel is essential reading for anyone seeking understanding of the subject.”
Publishers Weekly, Starred and “Pick of the Week”

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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The 19th Wife
Preface to the First Edition

In the one year since I renounced my Mormon faith, and set out to tell the nation the truth about American polygamy, many people have wondered why I ever agreed to become a plural wife. Everyone I meet, whether farmer, miner, railman, professor, cleric, or the long-faced Senator, and most especially the wives of these-everyone wants to know why I would submit to a marital practice so filled with subjugation and sorrow. When I tell them my father has five wives, and I was raised to believe plural marriage is the will of God, these sincere people often ask, But Mrs. Young-how could you believe such a claim?  

Faith, I tell them, is a mystery, elusive to many, and never easy to explain.  

Now, with the publication of this autobiography, my enemies will no doubt suspect my motives. Having survived attempts on both my life and character, however, I stand unconcerned by their assaults. I have chosen to commit my memories to the page neither for fame, the trough from which I have drunk and would be happy never to return to, nor fortune, although it is true I am without home and have two small boys to care for. Simply, I wish to expose the tragic state of polygamy's women, who must live in a bondage not seen in this country since the abolishment of slavery a decade ago; and to reveal the lamentable situation of its children, lonely as they are.  

I promise my Dear Reader I shall recount my story truthfully, even when it distresses me to do so. In these pages you will come to know my mother, who by religious duty welcomed four wives into her husband's bed. You will encounter the old woman forced to share her husband with a girl one-fifth her age. And you shall meet the gentleman with so many wives that when one approaches him on the street, he answers, "Madame, do I know you?"  

I can, and will, go on.  

Under what circumstances does such outrage thrive? The Territory of Utah, glorious as it may be, spiked by granite peaks and red jasper rocks, cut by echoing canyons and ravines, spread upon a wide basin of gamma grass and wandering streams, this land of blowing snow and sand, of iron, copper, and the great salten sea-Utah, whose scarlet-golden beauty marks the best of God's handiwork-the Territory of Utah stands defiant as a Theocracy within the borders of our beloved Democracy, imperium in imperio.  

I write not for sensation, but for Truth. I leave judgment to the hearts of my good Readers everywhere. I am but one, yet to this day countless others lead lives even more destitute and enslaved than mine ever was. Perhaps my story is the exception because I escaped, at great risk, polygamy's conjugal chains; and that my husband is the Mormon Church's Prophet and Leader, Brigham Young, and I am his 19th, and final, wife.  

Sincerely Yours,
Ann Eliza Young
Summer 1874  

Wife #19:
A Desert Mystery

By Jordan Scott  

Her Golden Boy  

According to the St. George Register, on a clear night last June, at some time between eleven and half-past, my mom-who isn't anything like this-tiptoed down to the basement of the house I grew up in with a Golden Boy .22 in her hands. At the foot of the stairs she knocked on the door to my dad's den. From inside he called who is it? She answered me, BeckyLyn. He said-or must've said-come in. What happened next? Nearly everyone in southwest Utah can tell you. She nailed an ace shot and blew his heart clean from his chest. The paper says he was in his computer chair, and from the way the blood splattered the drywall they're pretty sure the blast spun him three times around.  

At the time of his death my dad was online playing Texas hold em and chatting with three people, including someone named DesertMissy. He spent the final seconds of his life in this exchange:  

Manofthehouse2004: hang on

DesertMissy: phone?

Manofthehouse2004: no my wife

DesertMissy: which one?

Manofthehouse2004: #19  

Sometime later-a few seconds? minutes?-DesertMissy wrote: u there??  

Later she tried again: u there????  

Eventually she gave up. They always do.  

When my mom pulled the trigger my dad had a full house, three fives and a pair of ducks. He was all in. The paper says although dead, he ended up winning seven grand.  

I once heard someone on tv say we die as we lived. That sounds about right. After my dad was shot the blood seeped across his t-shirt in a heavy stain. He was sixty-seven, his face pre-cancerously red. Everything about him was thick and worn from a life boiled by the sun. When I was a kid I used to dream he was a cowboy. I would imagine him out in the barn saddling his roan with the white socks, readying himself for a ride of justice. But my dad never rode anywhere for justice. He was a religious con man, a higher-up in a church of lies, the kind of schemer who goes around saying God meant for man to have many women and children and they shall be judged on how they obey. I know people don't really talk like that, but he did and so do a lot of the men where I come from, which is-let's just say-way the fuck out in the desert. You might've heard of us. The First Latter-day Saints, but everyone knows us as the Firsts. I should tell you right off we weren't Mormons. We were something else-a cult, a cowboy theocracy, a little slice of Saudi America. We've been called everything. I know all that because I left six years ago. That was the last time I saw my dad. My mom too. I know you know this but just in case: she was wife #19.  

His first wife was more than willing to put the rap on my mom. For someone who wasn't supposed to talk to nonbelievers, Sister Rita had no trouble telling the Register everything. "I was up in the keeping room with the girls' hose," she blabbed to the paper. "That's when I saw her come upstairs. She had one of those faces-it looked funny, all squished up and red, like she'd seen something. I thought about asking but I didn't, I don't know why. I found him about twenty minutes after that when I went down myself. I should've gone down the minute I saw that face of hers, but how was I supposed to know? When I saw him in his chair like that, with his head, you know, just hanging in his chest like that, and all that blood-it was everywhere, I mean all over him, everything so, so wet, and red-well I started calling, just calling out to anyone for help. That's when they came running down, all of them, the women I mean, one after the next, the kids too, they kept coming. The house shook, there were so many running down the stairs. The first to get there was Sister Sherry, I think. When I told her what happened, and then she saw for herself, she started crying, screaming really, and the next one, she started crying too, and then the next after her, and so on. I never heard anything like it. The shrieks spread up the line, like fire, catching and spreading, one after the next and pretty soon it seemed the whole house was on fire with screams, if you know what I mean. You see, we all loved him just the same."  

The next morning the Lincoln County sheriff handcuffed my mom: "You'll have to come with me, Sister." I don't know who called him in, he usually didn't get out to Mesadale. There's a picture of her being guided into the backseat of the cruiser-the rope of her braid flat against her back as she ducks in. The paper says she didn't resist. Tell me about it. She didn't resist when her husband married her fifteen-year-old niece. She didn't resist when the Prophet told her to throw me out. "No point in making a fuss"-she used to say that all the time. For years she was obedient, believing it part of her salvation. Then one day I guess she went pop! That's how these things go, you hear about it all the time. Except because of the suppressor it was probably more like a phump! than a pop!  

Did Sister Rita do her in? Actually, it was the chat session. The Register loved the irony: VICTIM NAMES HIS MURDERER BEFORE SHE PULLS THE TRIGGER. Technically he didn't name her, he numbered her. But really, Rita's statement didn't help either. It gave the sheriff enough. The next day my mom was booked and that picture was up on the Register's home page, my mom sliding into the cruiser, her hair a heavy chain.  

That's how I found out. I was at the library with my friend Roland. We were tooling around the web, checking out nothing in particular, then all of a sudden there it was, the story about my mom:  

Sign of Strife in Renegade Sect?  

In the picture she's shackled at the wrists. Her forehead is white and glossy, reflecting a camera's flash in the dawn, and she has a look in her eyes. How to describe it? Should I say her eyes were dark and damp, the eyes of a small snouted animal? Or will you know what I mean if I say she had the scared-shitless look of a woman busted for murder and about to spend the rest of her life in the can?    

From the Hardcover edition.

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