Anyone attempting to write about the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, even a sliver of it, will immediately encounter the difficult task of accuracy. That is because on nearly every issue in the Church’s past, and in regard to every person who has played a part in the Church’s often remarkable life, there are at least two, and typically more, combative opinions on what each side sincerely calls “the truth.” In the preface to his 1925 biography of Brigham Young, M.R. Werner states the case plainly: “Mormon and anti-Mormon literature is frequently unreliable.”
(from The 19th Wife, Author’s Notes and Acknowledgments, page 509)
In The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff fictionalizes the story of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, an early prophet of the Latter-Day Saints. He tells Ann Eliza’s story and that of her family through her memoir; the memoir of her father, Chauncey Webb; a deposition from her brother, Gilbert Webb; letters from her son, Lorenzo Dee; and even a diary entry written by Brigham Young when he was imprisoned for a night due to his unwillingness to pay Ann Eliza alimony after being ordered by the court to do so. These “documents” read as though they really were penned in the late 1800s.
Ann Eliza’s story begins with her parents becoming Mormons and the numerous journeys made by the early Saints until they eventually settle in Utah. Ebershoff presents Joseph Smith’s dilemma after receiving the revelation about celestial marriage, also known as plural marriage or polygamy. The book shows the tough choice Ann Eliza’s parents were forced to make, and her mother ultimately agrees that her husband will take another wife to ensure they will go to heaven. Ann Eliza’s memoir focuses on the hardships polygamy placed upon her mother, and Chauncey’s memoir shows that polygamy wasn’t easy for him either (though he went on to take a total of five wives). Ann Eliza eventually marries Brigham Young and learns the harshness of polygamy herself, ultimately prompting her to leave the Mormon community, engage in a very public divorce, and travel the country speaking out against plural marriage.
Woven in with Ann Eliza’s story is the story of Jordan Scott, a young gay man excommunicated from the Firsts community in Mesadale, a sect that refused to abide by the 1890 decision made by the leadership of the Mormons to end the practice of polygamy. The Firsts’ men have dozens of wives and hundreds of children, the women wear prairie dresses and never cut their hair, and the Prophet is said to run off the community’s young men so that he will have the youngest, prettiest girls to himself. These people are told by the Prophet how to cheat the welfare system, and they believe whatever they are told; Jordan grew up believing France was wiped off the map during a war and only learned the truth after meeting a Frenchman in Las Vegas. Jordan returns to Mesadale after his mother, a 19th wife, is accused of shooting and killing her husband, and Jordan is determined to uncover the truth about his father’s murder.
Ebershoff did a great job creating believable, sympathetic characters, and I was pulled in immediately by Jordan’s story. Ann Eliza’s story is a little slower paced, mainly due to the fact that it is told through various historical “documents,” and though I found it interesting, I couldn’t wait to get back to Jordan, probably because his narrative was so honest, so full of pain and confusion that I just felt for him right away.
I knew nothing about the Latter-Day Saints or the modern polygamist sects when I picked up The 19th Wife, and I still can’t claim to know anything about their faith. Ebershoff tells the story so well, it’s easy to forget that it’s fiction. But it’s important to remember that the story isn’t true, especially when dealing with such a controversial topic as religion. I’ve read several reviews of The 19th Wife indicating that the things written about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young made them uncomfortable, as they were the first Prophets of the Latter-Day Saints. I can understand their reservations, and the book doesn’t portray Smith and Young in the best light, but it’s fiction. Unfortunately, as with The Da Vinci Code, some readers will believe the story to be fact. We should use historical fiction as a starting point for researching the truth, and I’ll admit that I was curious as to how much of The 19th Wife is true and how much is made up and turned to different resources to learn more about the early Mormon church.
The 19th Wife raises a lot of questions about faith, family, and polygamy (of course) and its impact on women and children. Ebershoff does a brilliant job creating compelling characters, making you think about both sides of the story, and shifting from the past to the present and tying them together. With Ann Eliza’s story told from various points of view, you get a chance to see inside the minds of different characters on different sides of the polygamy issue. While the reader knows from the start that Ann Eliza’s story will eventually end with her divorce from Brigham Young, the outcome of Jordan’s story is not known, and the suspense makes the book difficult to put down.
One of the more controversial parts of The 19th Wife is Brigham Young’s prison diary, which required Ebershoff to write from the point of view of the early Prophet. Ebershoff was kind enough to write a guest post about writing in the voice of Brigham Young, which I will share with you now.
On “The Prison Diary of Brigham Young”
By David Ebershoff
When I was about half way through writing The 19th Wife, I realized I needed to hear some of this story in the voice of Brigham Young. Ann Eliza, both in my novel and in real life, had a lot to say about the man who called her his 19th wife. But the more she said, the more I wanted to hear from Brigham in his own words.
In March 1875, the federal judge in Utah charged Brigham with contempt of court in his divorce from Ann Eliza. He was sent to the federal penitentiary, outside Salt Lake City, where he spent one night. Although his imprisonment is a fact, we know almost nothing about how he spent his long hours in prison that night. I began to wonder what jail was like for him. Here was Brigham Young, one of the most powerful men in America, going to jail over a dispute with one of his wives. What did he think about as he rode out to prison, followed, as he was, by both supporters and a throng jeering him? What did he ponder when he looked out through his window into the dark desert night? Was he afraid? Did he think of Joseph Smith, his beloved friend and prophet, who had died at the hands of a mob while in the orange-stone jailhouse in Carthage? Did Brigham have any doubts about what had led him to his incarceration? After some time I became convinced that I had to write a prison diary in Brigham’s voice, one that might illuminate his most private thoughts on a number of subjects, but especially polygamy.
At first I was intimidated by the challenge: who was I to channel such a well-known historical figure. I worried that anything I wrote would ring false to those who know Brigham through the historical record. But I also knew I had to try. The novelist’s job is to imagine the truth, to invent a truth so plausible it is accepted as the way things are and must be. The best way into Brigham’s head, I knew, was through his words, and so I read much of what he wrote and said. Thankfully, many of Brigham’s words – his sermons, declarations, letters, historical writings, and other communications – are well-catalogued and easily accessible. As I read through his written legacy, I began to note how much his voice changed depending on his subject and the context in which he was speaking. In a sermon, for example, his voice could be authoritative and grandiloquent, or it could be subtle and generous, while at other times his words could be interpreted as indifferent or even menacing. In his correspondence with his family he could be avuncular, affectionate, and playful, while other times he could be curt, businesslike, and ironic. The more I read the more I realized Brigham did not speak with one voice, just as most of us do not speak with one voice. His voice adjusted to his audience, his subject, his context. And this realization, basic as it is, freed me up to write what I call “The Prison Diary of Brigham Young” – a fictional journal of Brigham’s night in prison. In it he is affectionate and angry, loving and impatient, open and unyielding. In other words, in the diary I try to show him as a complex man in possession of the rich, contradictory impulses that made him human – and that make us all human.
I wrote this section of the novel in a great burst of energy, just a few days, writing through the night as I imagined Brigham writing through the night in his prison cell. By the end of it, my understanding of Brigham had grown, as well as my fondness for him. Brigham Young’s legacy is both extraordinary and extraordinarily complex. I believe we can say the same of all men and women.
Thanks, David! I really enjoyed reading about how you wrote this particular section of the book, and I appreciate you taking the time to write something for my blog.
David Ebershoff would like to offer a copy of The 19th Wife to one of my readers. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post, let me know why you’d like to read The 19th Wife, and include your email address. This giveaway is open to readers across the globe and will run until 11:59 pm EST on Nov. 19, 2008.
**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**
Disclosure: I received a copy of The 19th Wife from Random House for review purposes.
© 2008 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.