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Ebershoff, "The Nineteenth Wife" (reviewed by Marilyn Brown) Options · View
Posted: Friday, April 01, 2011 1:21:34 AM

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Title: The Nineteenth Wife
Author: David Ebershoff
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Novel
Year Published: 2008
Number of Pages: 525
ISBN: 978-0-8129-7415-7
Price: Paperback, $15

Reviewed by Marilyn Brown for the Association for Mormon Letters

Feeling the pressure to pick up that third paperback in a “three-for-the-price-of two,” I told the clerk, “Well, I suppose I ought to read this one,” although just reaching for it I could “smell” the reek of the uncomfortable stink of what I call *garbage*. Sure enough, finding the “gay” romance and the proliferating f-word, I winced (self-righteously). However, to be fair, I was caught up in this skillful writer’s narrative. And to be fair, I was impressed.

Wishing the tale could have been told by one of us *actual Mormons* (although nobody I know in our culture has this author’s skill to pull it off so completely) I finally justified this read saying, “The fact that he made it R-rated might attract the present reading world—it’s for sure none of *us* could have stomached doing it. And surprise! The *modern world* might learn something about *us*. Finally, an *outsider* (who writes “on mission” instead of “on a mission”) has presented this story without hate.”

Without hate. That is the chief wonder of this author’s treatment. David Ebershoff gives us a noble Brigham Young—speaking to the mob as he goes to prison: “My dear friends, you must listen to me and disperse now. . . . For we are a people of law, and rule, and Christian kindness. . . . Do not defy me, for in doing so you shall defy our Heavenly Father. You cry, Think of Carthage! Brethren, one day has not passed since June 27, 1844, when I have not thought of Carthage. . . . Joseph came to tell us the Latter-day Saints are the inheritors of Christ, and Christ has shown us that we do not take an eye for an eye. . . . Go now . . . . you must leave in peace, for that is what we believe.” (442)

Though the depiction of the prophet’s romance with his only divorcee Ann Eliza Webb Dee is less noble, (“Tell me you’ve always wanted me as I’ve wanted you!” He pressed me into the corner of the carriage.” [325]) we are inclined to forgive a man who can say, “I realize, more than anyone else, that for all the Saints who understand me as their Prophet, and trust me as their spiritual guide on Earth and into the Afterlife, many more people believe me to be a scoundrel. I can accept this misperception if it means being constant in my faith.” (442)

Ebershoff’s way of couching polygamy’s story in the mouth of the “celebrity wife” whose best selling defamation convinced President Grant and congress to stamp the practice out quickly, is something we Mormons may be willing to entertain when we realize “that in one sense she helped save the LDS Church and steer it toward its future.” (522) Eliza (in the author’s words) states, “I came to understand that were I to succeed in my mission, and eradicate celestial marriage from Deseret, I would also be saving the Latter-day Saints from themselves.” (422)

In his closing remarks, the author assures us most of his letters and documents are inventions “for that is what novelists do” (511) and he admits, “I’ll be the first to tell you I have not written the last word.” (523) I was impressed that he admitted he had not said the last word, for both Ann Eliza and Ebershoff are most capable of finding the downside of polygamy, “a crime of cruelty and abandonment.” (42cool Yet “cruelty and abandonment” are personal failings, and were certainly never the result of religious instruction.

Ann Eliza displays “righteous anger” toward the government for allowing freedom of religion. “I, of course, cherish my freedom, but I shall never want my freedom to restrict the freedom of another. In that case then I am not truly free, and none of us is truly free.” (42cool But come, Miss Ann Eliza! What does it mean to be “free?” What *freedom* must the single virtuous woman abandon when in divorce or widowhood she must “float” unsecured in a difficult world? Is she *free* to join a righteous family? Isn’t it true that her *freedom* is also restricted? Absolutely.

The tragedy of any life style—including polygamous, gay, or promiscuous—must be examined in the context of Christian practices. The “rebel voices” of literature are the “clamors” which usually get attention. The missing (and perhaps boring) stories are of those loving mothers in polygamous marriages who have time to write long treatises about how satisfying their lives are now that they have borne babies with righteous men, or how joyous are the relationships they share with other sister wives who shoulder some of the conjugal and practical responsibilities of a happy household. (Maybe reality tv will tell some of this?)

I do have to hand it to Ebershoff. He’s amazingly objective about the Mormon Church. “It is one of the fastest growing religions in the country and is the most successful American-born religion. (522) He did his homework. I hope it isn’t tongue in cheek that he honors the LDS girl that “gets it.” “Look at this girl. LDS through and through. BYU rah rah rah.  . . . No coffee, no tea, no Diet Coke, never a drink or a smoke or a hit, temple garments as white as Wasatch Snow, Relief Society chick, missionary missy . . . . Sister Kelly never tiring, never giving up, never getting angry or disappointed or dispirited when someone on the street said Joseph Smith can suck . . . continuing firm in her belief, never once thinking, I’m better than this, never once thinking, I’m better than *you*. Here she was, Kelly Dee, of hearty Pioneer stock, always well loved, always loving, three years from marriage, four from motherhood. (399)

The author’s willingness to show Sister Kelly’s compassion for one of the “lost boys” tells me it is not tongue-in-cheek:  “Sister Kelly . . . so clean, so hardworking, a human honeybee, she of the chosen people, of the desert kingdom, of the Saints. Yes, here she was, sitting in a crappy office chair helping kids like me. But not 'just helping, assisting, offering a hand.' No, she was researching, reading, learning, talking, understanding. Working hard to understand, wanting to understand, telling herself that’s the most important thing she can do. And it meant more to me than anything else.” *Understanding*. I suppose that is the reason we suffer through the f-words and the slanderous murders of the “frame story” that connect the novel to modern day. We do want to understand.

The author is incredibly skilled. He structures a treatise of fictional documents and research that lays the matter out clearly. And he writes amazing prose, sometimes sparkling with poetry, such as Lorenzo Dee’s obsession with the dolphins in his California ocean, or the addition to Brigham’s ride along the route to the penitentiary: “A small girl ran into the road, pelting my carriage with blue crocus. ‘Like Jesus before him,’ she cried, running back to her mother, who kissed her head. (441)  I’d like to know if this exquisite touch—and others—are “invented” or “true,” but it really doesn’t matter. The flavor of the text throughout this amazing study (perhaps with the exception of the “frame” story about a murder solved by modern gay “lost boys” which seems a little contrived) gives us many points of view to contemplate as our national culture sorts out “freedom of religion” with “life style” and the quest for the definition of “marriage” and “family.”
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