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Intertwined stories of a woman who divorced Brigham Young and a modern-day youth expelled from a fundamentalist cult.

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, August 10, 2008

THE 19TH WIFE

By David Ebershoff

Random House

514 pp. $26

After weathering the scrutiny and debates kicked up by Mitt Romney's run for the White House and Warren Jeffs's polygamous sect in Texas, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints probably deserves the rest of the year off. But, lo and behold, here comes an engrossing new novel that resurrects one of the Mormons' most destructive opponents: Ann Eliza Young, a beautiful, articulate woman who once shared Brigham Young's bed and then devoted her life to destroying him.

She's brought back to vivid life by David Ebershoff, an editor at Random House who bears no grudge against Mormons but has spent the last seven years studying their genesis and considering the human costs of revelation and inerrancy. His 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.

Ebershoff's title and much of his material come from a popular memoir that Ann Eliza Young published in 1875 called Wife No. 19, or the Story of a Life in Bondage, Being a Complete Exposé of Mormonism, and Revealing the Sorrows, Sacrifices and Sufferings of Women in Polygamy. (The Gilded Age knew how to write a subtitle.) Ann was raised in a polygamous home during the early days of the LDS Church when the saints miraculously created towns in the desert. In 1868, when she was 24 and Brigham Young was 67, she became one of his many wives. The total number of his wives and her position among them remain matters of continuing dispute, but all agree that it was not a match made in heaven. Brigham mostly ignored her as he ruled with absolute authority over a prosperous theocracy in uneasy coexistence with the U.S. government.

Five years later, citing abuse, neglect and abandonment, Ann began divorce proceedings and demanded $200,000 of Young's awesome fortune. Given these oversized personalities and the sensational details -- multiple sex partners! millions of dollars! -- the case exploded across the nation's newspapers and resulted in Ann's excommunication, Brigham's brief imprisonment and a torrent of horrible publicity about the church and its leaders. Ann emerged with a new career as a popular lecturer and writer about the degradations of "plural marriage," and 15 years after she began her crusade, the LDS Church ceased the practice of polygamy.

Ebershoff's presentation of Ann's life is a complicated revision of her memoir -- sometimes an act of aggressive editing, other times an act of literary creation. In addition to excerpting her tale and shaping new episodes, he has focused her narrative, trimmed away its considerable detours and subtly modernized her Victorian language while allowing her fierce testimony to retain its antique tone.

But hers is only one voice in the remarkable collection of voices that captures our attention here. Some of the best parts of The 19th Wife are those that Ebershoff has largely invented, including a remorseful chapter by Ann's father, who looks back on his life with deep regret and tries to make sense of his daughter's apostasy. "Her assault is cruel," he admits, "but I often wonder if her assassin's blade has been forged from an unalloyed truth." We learn from him about the tragedy of the so-called Handcart Disaster of 1856, in which fresh Mormon immigrants from Europe were lured into making what became a deadly trek across the United States to Utah. Ebershoff also creates a deposition from Ann's weary brother; it's filled with shame for his part in her marriage to Brigham and for his own failings as a husband. And there are letters written in the late 1930s by Ann's adult son, who's finally found peace in the worship of nature. He regards all that religious drama involving his mother during the previous century with a kind of wistful good humor.

A.S. Byatt once wrote a novel called The Biographer's Tale that presented an incoherent collection of notes meant to reproduce the baffling challenge of ordering disparate material, but she succeeded too well. The various documents and testimonies that Ebershoff creates in The 19th Wife are more artfully designed to play off each other, despite their initially cacophonous sounds. There are newspaper articles and archivists' memos, advertisements and playbills, letters and coded marginalia, even instant messages and a Wikipedia entry. From the conflicting records of others and an alternately moving and self-aggrandizing diary, Brigham Young himself emerges as a fascinating, frightening man of unbridled power who felt the full burden of saving so many souls -- and wiping his enemies off the Earth.

It's difficult to remember that Ebershoff is the ventriloquist behind all of these, even the Master's thesis about Ann supposedly written by a feminist Mormon in 2005. It fills in interesting detail about the period and demonstrates the LDS Church's gradual willingness to tolerate academic research into the darker aspects of its own history.

Less satisfying is the modern-day murder mystery that winds through this complicated collection of material. Jordan Scott is an endearing young man who was expelled at the age of 14 from the Firsts, a fundamentalist Mormon cult in Mesadale, Ariz., that sounds a lot like the one in Texas that dominated the news this spring. After a tough period of destitution and prostitution, Jordan has made a life for himself in California. But that hard-earned stability is disrupted when he hears that his mother has been arrested for murdering his exceedingly creepy, polygamous father. He drives back home to see her for the first time in six years and reluctantly decides to help prove her innocence. He's funny, a little flippant, finally at ease with his homosexuality, "just your regular run-of-the-mill polygamist boo-hoo tragedy," he says. His story, with its corny Hardy Boys theatrics, provides both levity and pathos, but it's jarringly incongruous with the novel's 19th-century voices, and its drama simply can't compete with Ann and Brigham's titanic clash.

Still, as Jordan risks his life snooping around this violent cult, he offers provocative commentary on the splinter groups that Joseph Smith's revelation spawned, the unimaginable humiliations of polygamy and the difficulty of thinking outside the parameters of one's religious community. "I know it's hard to believe people really talk like that," he says about his mother's stubborn devotion, "but consider this: if you didn't know anything else, if your only source of information was the Prophet . . . you'd probably believe it too. You wouldn't know how to form a doubt."

Even after her brutal denunciations of Mormonism and Brigham Young, Ebershoff shows Ann feeling that same persistence of belief, the difficulty of breaking outside everything she once knew. "My faith had been emptied out like a can," she says, not in celebration of her freedom but in full recognition of how harrowing such emptiness is. "I have heard an esteemed medical doctor say that illness is the loneliest state. I would argue that doubt deserves that claim."

There's no use pretending that reading The 19th Wife isn't a lot of work, but its rewards are correspondingly vast. Admittedly, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will have reason to react unenthusiastically to this portrayal of their early leaders, and members of pedophilic cults should definitely choose something else for book club. But the voices Ebershoff has brought to life here dramatize one of the most remarkable periods of America's religious history, and he's just as discerning about the bizarre descendants that can sprout like toxic weeds from a founder's revelation. The greatest triumph is the way all this material, though it's focused on the peculiarities of Mormonism -- devout and heretical, ancient and modern -- illuminates the larger landscape of faith. ·

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.

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