The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff is really two stories, something I didn't realize when I initially began reading. Not that that turned out to be a bad thing, but going in I thought I was just getting the story of Ann Eliza Young and I ended up with that and more. I'm still not sure the present-day story was needed, or even all that good, really. But interesting? Yes, indeed.
So...This is the story of Ann Eliza, who became the nineteenth wife of LDS leader Brigham Young and later divorced him amid much public turmoil and sensation in the 1870s. We follow the story of her mother, Elizabeth Webb, who was the first wife of Chauncey Webb, and whose faith is strongly shown in her life and the way she raised her children. Ann Eliza is very headstrong, however, and quickly marries James Dee once she's an adult; that marriage, though disastrous and ending in divorce, produces Ann Eliza's two sons. Interwoven with Ann Eliza's problems are those of her brother, Gideon, who ends up at the mercy of Brigham and convinces his sister to marry the leader, even when she does not want to. All of these stories are told from differing points of view, some in several chapters and some in only one, and we even have Brigham's voice telling us his doubts and desires. It's obvious Ebershoff did his research thoroughly and well in the way he illuminates the tenets of the LDS Church and the problems and interests of polygamy.
Bouncing in and out of this story is the present-day mystery of Jordan Scott, whose mother (Number Nineteen in her own marriage) is accused of the murder of her polygamous husband. Jordan doesn't buy this story because he knows his mom; she's not unhappy with her conservative, fundamentalist lot and there are other wives/people with more motive than she has. Jordan, traveling with his dog, Elektra, goes to the town of Mesaville to see what he can discover and finds out that not only is he unwelcome, he's not wrong, either. While he investigates, he also becomes involved with a new boyfriend, Tom, and a fellow runaway/former "First" child, Johnny.
The story of Ann Eliza is well done, and the focal point for most of the book. I loved how we moved among the important people in these events. Ebershoff uses a variety of methods, including newspaper clippings, narratives, and even a wikipedia entry to get his points across, all to good effect. He's brought Ann Eliza to life and given us a fairly accurate (or as accurate as can be) portrait of a woman who had finally had enough and wished to be more than just a number in her husband's harem. She wasn't always likable, and she had her own issues, to be sure, but without her interference, polygamy might have taken much longer to not be recognized in the LDS.
The modern day story is good, in that it points out that there are still sects that practice polygamy and the subjugation of women, and the children of those unions often turn out disenfranchised and forsaken. I just never really liked Jordan all that much, and didn't get very involved in the overall story. There were too many characters I didn't really care about, and maybe the intention of alerting the reader to the continuing problem should have been the focus rather than a murder story. It's not bad, and I did find myself trying to figure out what happened. I just don't think it was a necessary component to the overall success of the novel.
If you don't know much about the history of polygamy in the United States, this book will do a pretty fair turn at informing you in such a way as to give several sides to the story and making you think about how/why it happened. It's well written and engaging, and will probably have you looking up more information once you close the last page. I'll be thinking about this one for a while.