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The 19th Wife - David Ebershoff

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Genre: Fiction / Author: David Ebershoff / Paperback / 608 Pages / Book is published 2009-01-02 by Black Swan

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    7 Reviews
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      10.10.2010 16:35
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      a book about polygamy

      What do you think about when you think of Mormonism? The unfailingly polite young men or women who come knocking on your door hoping to convert you? Maybe your thoughts turn to their famous choirs or their life in the desert state of Utah. It is perhaps more likely that you think of them as a kind of cult where coffee is forbidden and men take many wives. The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff tells the story of two 19th wives living in different centuries but whose lives share many features.

      The first 19th wife was Ann Eliza Young, wife of Joseph Brigham who was prophet of the Church of the Latter Day Saints at the time of their marriage. Brigham had known Ann Eliza since her birth and employed dirty tactics to force her to become his wife and attempt to make her move into the famous Lion House where all of his women lived. Ann Eliza grew to hate the church which forced women to live as slaves and her book "Wife 19" written after she escaped likened the plight of sister wives to that of slaves.

      I was fascinated by the historical sections of the novel, I knew nothing of the history of the Latter Day Saints before reading the book and would have been inclined to write them off as a bunch of oddballs but reading "The 19th Wife" really opened my eyes. The Latter Day Saints were early American pioneers led by Joseph Smith who led his followers across the USA to eventually build a home town in Utah in the 1840s. The early Latter Day Saints faced opposition from outsiders which even resulted in a war between the community and the USA army. The achievements of these early men and woman are laid out in the book and it also gives an excellent account of their living conditions with all the resulting joys and sorrows.

      The second 19th wife is a fictional one, BeckyLyn Scott is imprisoned awaiting trial for the murder of her husband who was shot through the heart. All the evidence points towards her guilt, her fingerprints were on the gun and an internet chat session the deceased had moments before his death makes it clear she was coming towards him and it is likely she will face the death penalty if convicted. The only person who believes in her innocence is her son Jordan who she dumped at the side of the road when he was just 14 after the church elders had accused him of sleeping with one of his many sisters. Will Jordan be able to save his mum?

      The second story is not nearly as engaging as the first. It started off well with many elements of a good murder mystery being present but it seemed as though this modern yarn was merely tacked onto the book to highlight the legacy of Ann Eliza rather than a fully fledged story in its own right. The parts of the modern tale which interested me the most was the plight of the so called "lost boys" who are kicked out of the family home as they reach maturity as there is no room for them in a community where only a few men live with their extended families.

      Jordan's anger about being raised in a polygamous community called The Firsts who are not a part of the official Mormon church is evident and he revisits his childhood in order to help his mum. He is also joined on his travels by a young boy with a smart mouth called Johnny who is another lost boy and his inclusion in the story seems to be a plot device just to explore modern day polygamy. The contrast between the two sections of the book is stark, the historical sections are meticulously researched and gripping to read while the modern prose is very ordinary and bordering on lacklustre at times and the two stories do not seem to join together very well.

      If I was judging "The 19th Wife" by the modern detective story alone I would give it a mere two stars and if I were marking the historical sections it would be a five star read. Because the historical section of the book is so good and around 80% of the content is telling Ann Eliza's story I will give the book a solid four stars as it is mostly a gripping read.

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        28.02.2010 13:12
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        An interesting look at the power of religion in society

        "The 19th Wife" is a book set in two time periods - the present day and the late 19th century. The book is concerned with Mormonism and the thorny issue of polygamous marriage.

        The 19th century storyline concerns Ann Eliza Young, known as the "19th wife" of Brigham Young, the revered Mormon leader. Ann Eliza challenged polygamy as a Mormon way of life by writing a book and exposing the practice after publicly filing for divorce from Brigham. Ann Eliza's apostasy helped pave the way to the Mormons renouncing polygamy as an accepted practice in their society due to the public outcry throughout America.

        The present day storyline concerns a breakaway sect of Mormons known as the Firsts who refused to renounce polygamy and still practice it in their secretive and closed society. The modern day protagonist is Jordan, a young man who was expelled from the Firsts by their Prophet aged 14. He returns when he discovers that his father has been shot and his mother (wife number 19) is in prison for his murder.

        The 19th century storyline is presented as a mixture of Ann Eliza's own words, from her autobiography "Wife No 19" and extracts from her father's diary. I'm assuming that this part was largely fictitious as it is referred to as being a secret text held by the Mormon Church. There are also some additions to Ann Eliza's story from a modern young Mormon woman who is studying Ann Eliza as part of her degree.

        The modern day storyline is a bit more accessible as it is focusing on Jordan and his feelings about the sect he was brought up in, his subsequent expulsion and his feelings about his parents. The description of life in the polygamous First society is horrendous and Jordan's expulsion was little short of sickening. The expulsion of young teenage boys is quite routine from this society as they are seen as competition for the young girls. The older men like to take the young girls as new wives and the girls have less choice due to the shortage of young men.

        Jordan is investigating the murder of his father as his mother protests her innocence and claims that she did not do it. She is still firm in her belief in the Prophet, the leader of the First society and claims that God has sent Jordan to save her.

        I found Jordan an engaging character and thought he was fleshed out well by the author. The other characters he meets in his investigation are likewise quite engaging, especially Johnny and Tom. Jordan's love for his dog Elektra is quite touching and she injects some humour into the book.

        I found the 19th century storyline quite hard-going at times and not as engaging as Jordan's storyline, although still interesting. I didn't know much about Mormonism and polygamy before reading this book, other than the fact they were linked of course. Ann Eliza's story is quite an insight into the Mormon society of the time. Ann Eliza's scepticism is balanced out fairly well by the author's inclusion of the young Mormon woman who is studying her.

        I thought this book was an interesting read but I found it quite difficult to get into at times and it wasn't a book I was desperate to get back to. I felt this was not a bad read but the two parts of the book didn't seem to gel well for me. It felt like two separate books at some points and I did enjoy Jordan's parts of the book more.

        This was an interesting look at belief and the power that religion can give some unscrupulous people over the vulnerable. I would recommend this if you are interested in learning a bit more about the early days of Mormonism and the power that some sects hold even in the present day.

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          01.11.2009 18:54
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          Worth investing the time, some interestng history along the way

          The 19th Wife

          What is this story about?

          This novel tells several stories simultaneously, switching between three narrators: A contemporary narrator called Jordan is dealing with the fact that his father has been shot dead and his mother, the main suspect, is in jail. His mother is the 19th wife of the narrator's polygamous father, who lives in the Utah desert in a religious sect (the sect is a break-away from the Mormons)

          The second voice is from the 1870's memoirs of Ann Eliza Young the 19th wife of Brigham Young, Prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (the Saints or commonly known as the Mormons).

          The third voice is a contemporary voice of a Mormon academic who is writing a paper on Ann Eliza (the academic turns out to be a descendant of Ann Eliza, the 19th wife).

          300 pages into this 600 page novel, the stories come together and you see the link between the three threads.

          Jordan (with the dead father) has been brought up in a sect that dates from the late 19th centaury when it split from the Mormons, apparently over the issue of polygamy and its validity. This sect refused to give it up when the Mormons renounced it and still live this way, where the Mormons retreated from this lifestyle, in part because of the attention and criticism that was generated by the writings of Ann Eliza Young.

          Jordan's tale is a dusty, desert who-done-it with a smoking gun, a corpse, a denial and a lot of people who refuse to tell whatever they know. The sect is the whole town and everyone in it - including the police officers - are members and very tight lipped. All the families live in super-houses where a man and his multiple wives, often his tens of wives, live with the dozens and dozens of children. As the Federal authorities do not recognise the second or subsequent marriages, most of the wives can claim benefits as single mothers and the whole society exists on Welfare cheques. There are murky stories and half-truths and more abuses than just the polygamy.

          The whole is it/isn't is a marriage is central to the book. Ann Eliza Young, in trying to claim alimony from Brigham Young, is at first rebuffed when his lawyers point out that she can not be his wife as the law of 19th century America does not allow for multiple wives - so if she's not a wife she can't have alimony.

          Although much of the story is focused on the modern day man investigating his fathers murder and on the relationship between the polygamous Brigham Young and (mainly one of) his wives, I did also learn a lot about the Mormons/Church of the Latter Day Saints along the way. The author mixes fact with fiction and invention to tell the story. The author also comments that there are frequently two sets of documents about some of the historic events depicted and the interpretation is often very different - sometimes diametrically opposed - depending on who is reporting the 'facts'.

          Does it work as a book?

          In my opinion, it works surprisingly well. I found the book a little difficult to get into and the 21st century players (Jordan, his mother, his late father etc) are not very pleasant or attractive characters at first, although I did warm somewhat to Jordan as the book went on. The Mormon's are not presented as being terribly lovely people and Brigham Young, partly from Ann Eliza's own (genuine) account and partly from the fictionalised extras is presented as manipulative, greedy, bullying (if not actually murdering or violent), mean, a sexual predator and a liar.

          The technique, more or less alternating chapters from the 19th and 21st century stories to they develop in parallel, works quite well although it was 300 pages before I saw the connection and more than 500 pages before I realised where is was taking me (and I won't give away the plot logic and dénouement).

          So yes, on balance, I would say it will work.

          Overall, a good read?

          Good, yes, not great. Quite well written, I felt, moves along quite well and a good sense of place. I was unconvinced by some of the people and there is quite a bit of caricature. A long book at just over 600 pages - this one would fill quite a long train journey!

          My copy was published by Black Swan price £7.99
          ISBN 978-0-552-77498-7

          The cover blurb says this was a New York Times bestseller.

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          10.10.2009 19:15
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          Worth a read but not worth buying

          This book contains two parallel stories about life in a polygamous Mormon sect. The first is set in the present day and is about a young man who was kicked out of his sect but has now returned as his mother has been accusing of killing her husband. The other story is set over a century earlier and is the story of the Morman Church in the early days told by her mother and daughter.

          As someone who likes learning new things I found the book very interesting in how it told the story of the Mormon Church and the later divisions due to differences of opinion over the polygamous lifestyle and for that reason I much preferred the historical thread of the book.

          The current thread was obviously meant to lend a bit of intrigue but I found it a bit predictable and the style of writing from the point of view of the young man was slightly irritating. I don't want to give anything away but I was also disappointed by the ending of the book.

          Overall this was an interesting book but not one that I got very into, hence it took me a couple of months to read it (these days its a sign of a book that I'm really enjoying if I manage it much quicker than that though).

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          22.06.2009 00:14

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          Fantastic, illuminating read

          This is without doubt not an easy read, however it is a gripping insight into a previously little explored culture. Unlike other readers I much prefered the historical sections to the modern murder mystery, which seemed a thin sub plot in comparision to the compelling story of the early Mormon faith. While the book had me gripped throughout, I thought the historical section finished quite abruptly, which weakened the book overall.

          I felt the book offered quite a balanced view on a difficult subject, although I would have liked to see more input from Brigham's wives, as I felt we only got to hear from wives who had a very negative view of the practice, while clearly some were in fact very content. I also would have liked to see some form of ending for the 19th wife, the modern tale dominated the end of the book, which was a shame as this was not the story that had had me gripped throughout.

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          27.05.2009 12:56

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          good for a fact filled fun read

          Jordan's father has been murdered, he finds out on the Internet that his mother has been arrested for the crime; his mother was his father's 19th wife. This is an excellent murder mystery taking the reader in to the hidden society of Mormonism, I couldn't figure out who the killer was, the book kept me tied in the whole way through. Lots of engaging characters and the intriguing society made for a great book. Jordan story will touch a lot of people, I found it tragic that young people could be treated like he is.

          It is also a historical novel providing great insight into the start of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and plural marriage in America. While I'm not sure all of the sources are real, the story behind that of Ann Eliza Young who was either the 19th, 27th or 54th wife of Brigham Young is. This woman finally brought about the act that made polygamy illegal, starting with a fight to divorce Brigham Young and escape the church.


          This book leaves a few lose ends, which I would have liked to have tidied up, but over all is a very enjoyable read!

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          14.02.2009 20:43
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          Enjoyable read

          I just finished this book today after starting it - erm three days ago -and I could NOT put it down.

          The book is a chunky volume (my favourite) and part of the Richard and Judy Book Club selection for 2009 - it's also part of the buy one get one half price deal in WHSMITH at the moment - though is £7.99 when bought singly.

          Two stories interlink throughout the book -the modern day tale of a polygamous wife who is arrested for allegedly killing her husband on a Mormon 'cult' settlement in Utah - and that of the wife of one of the founders of the Mormon Church who was instrumental in breaking the main church away from this policy in the late 1800's. The story of the murder is the real mystery in the book and is the part of the book which keeps you reading looking for clues. The story of Ann Eliza Young (the real life wife who wrote a book on her experience of polygamy and was instrumental in it becoming outlawed within the official Mormon Church) is what keeps you fascinated.

          The modern day tale is told through the eyes of Jordan Scott - a gay former member of the Mormon 'cult' where polygamy is still practised. He was abansoned as a child by his mother - the 19th wife of Jordan's father. It is she who is arrested on suspicion of killing and shooting him and the story centres on Jordan's quest to prove her innocence and delve into his past,and relationship with his mother.

          Ann Eliza's tale is told by fictional excerpts from her book 'The 19th Wife' (confusingly she did write a book with a similar premise but these accounts are fiction) and other things such as court reports and diaries of her polygamous husband Brigham Young and other contemporaries. The different ways her story is told is quite unique to this book and gives a fascinmating insight into how history is written - by propoganda, factual accounts, diaries and word of mouth.

          This is a great book and really sparked my interest in Ann Eliza Young and her story. On learning she is a real historical figure I will probably try and find out more about her - as she seems an amazing woman. The book can be confusing trying to work out what is true and what is Ebershoff's creation, but all in all he has used history to weave a wonderful fictional tale which is sure to interest anyone who picks up this book. A real truimph.

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