Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff (with author guest post and giveaway)

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.

Read an excerpt from The 19th Wife here.

Read a note from David Ebershoff about the origins of The 19th Wife here.

Read Ann Eliza Young's original memoir here.

Read original newspapers about the divorce of Brigham and Ann Eliza Young here.

Reading group questions are here.
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 midnight EST on Nov. 19!
I'd like to thank TLC Book Tours for giving me the opportunity to participate in The 19th Wife tour!

Click here to see the rest of the tour stops for The 19th Wife.

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of The 19th Wife from the publisher for review purposes.


Shana said...

Anna, great review.

David, I really enjoyed your insight into the researching and writing of this part of the novel.

I can see how Brigham Young used different voices at different times. Like you said, I think we all tend to do that.

Anna, no need to enter me in the contest but I'm sure this will be a popular one as this is such a hot book right now.

I'm looking forward to the discussion that will occur. It seems many tour stops have experienced great back and forth in the form of reader comments!


Alyce said...

I would love to win this book because it sounds like a fascnating tale about polygamy in different eras. Also, I have read great reviews of this book!

Jeannie said...

Hi Anna. Please enter me for the contest. Thanks!

My best friend up through high school was Mormon. I went to several youth events and to a few services with her. During that time I learned a lot about the religion.

Also, because of my genealogy background, I really have come to understand the history of the LDS. They've have a remarkable story to tell.

Teddy Rose said...

Excellent review Anna!

David, my heart beat rose as I was reading how the prision diary came to you. I could feel the energy you felt in writing that part. Thank you so much for sharing that.

I have wanted to read this book even before it was published. I tried to get an ARC, but had no such luck. I've been following the blog tour closely and have been enjoying it immensely. Now that I read about David's writing process about the Prision diary, I am even more desperate to read it.

Anna, I added this wonderful giveaway of yours to my most recent 'Books Giveaway Galore' post on my blog. It is beside your other giveaway, here:

Mari said...

This sounds like a great book, one I would be very interested in reading. I must admit to being a bit of a fan of the HBO show, Big Love, and since starting watching that I have been interested in learning more about polygamy and The Church of Latter-Day Saints.

Anonymous said...

Yep, It is east to forget that it is a fiction - and i think thats a very good quality of a book :)

I have never read anything about Polygamy - and it would be really interesting to read a girl's part.

A very nice post by David- and I have read a couple of them already on various blogs :)

I would like to be enetered! It is an International Giveaway :) Thanks Anna - u r so cool .. and Thanks David for gibing me an opportunity - I was just looking for :)

Theresa N. said...

The Early History of the Mormon Church has always interested me. I'd like to read this one. Thanks:)
Theresa N

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! Don't enter me - I have the book and loved it.

Anonymous said...

I know little about the Mormon church, but this sounds like a fascinatingm, fictional account of some of the early believers. I would love to read it.


Anonymous said...

I would LOVE to win this book because I am a huge fan of historical fiction, and I've been wanting to read it since I first heard about it!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

This is one of those books I hate to include my standard "No need to enter me" line for, but I've got to. I've made NO progress in the overloaded TBR mountains in here. *sigh*

Anyway, no need to enter me. I'm just dropping in to say this post is awesome and thanks for the e-mail. I've got a post about this up at Win a Book for you.

Unknown said...

I'd love to read this because it sounds so interesting. I couldn't even imagine a life with a husband who has other wives. This book sounds like a real eye opener into the way of some people in our country live. Thanks for entering me.

unforgetable_dreamer_always (at)hotmail (dot) com

Sara said...

I really want to read this one. SO far everyone has loved it. I come from a long line of Mormon's as well and the history fascinates me. Thanks!

Sararush at hotmail dot com

Serena said...

I really loved this review. There is so much passion in this review and I love the comments about it being fiction. I think sometimes as readers we get too absorbed in books and sometimes believe that these characters are real. We just need to remind ourselves.

I would love to enter the contest and read this book. I love stories that parallel one another and deal with controversial and historical events and topics.

savvyverseandwit AT gmail DOT com

As if you need reminding.

Serena said...

oops...forgot to tell you that it is posted in the sidebar of the blog!

Tricia said...

As a member of the Mormon faith, I really appreciate your clarification about this book being a work of fiction. You did an excellent job with this review.

Jo-Jo said...

I would love to win a copy of this book. I enjoy reading historical fiction, especially when it delves into another culture and way of life.

Keyo said...

Hey Anna, Pls do enter me for the contest thanks.

The reason why i would love to read this is because i lived in AZ (phnx) and 80 % of the people i went to high school with were mormons. I have come to know quite a bit from them bout their religion. Also i am interested in the whole LDS sect. I read a true life book of Carolyn Jessop who ran away from the sect with her 8 children.

This book would be nice to read for many reasons.


a real librarian said...

What a great review!! I'd love to read this and learn more about Mormon beliefs.

Thanks for the chance to win!


Amber said...

This review really makes me want to read The 19th Wife as soon as possible! I have a few friends that are Mormon but I have never really bothered to do research to better understand the religion. This book sounds like a great (thought fictionalized) start.

Please enter me and thank you for the international giveaway. I really appreciate it and would be thrilled to win :)


Anonymous said...

Anna - No need to enter me as I was on the tour and have already read and reviewed it. I appreciate this review so much, it's very well done and very fair. Being LDS, I find it interesting to see what people's reactions are to this book.

Marie Cloutier said...

You don't have to enter me in the contest but I did want to just congratulate you on a great review & interview. Fascinating stuff. I haven't read the book but I really enjoyed your take on it, and David's contribution as well.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to read this title. I grew up modern day LDS, but it's certainly true that the early prophets of the church preached polygamy. I'm no longer a Mormon, found Jesus a couple of years ago :)! But this is certainly an aspect of LDS history that is swept under the rug, as it would indicate the church prophets are false prophets rather than true ones following the LDS removal of this doctrine from their modern creed.

avisannschild said...

Great review, Anna, and a fabulous post by David. I loved this book and reviewed it here. (I also linked to your post.)

avisannschild said...

Oh and no need to enter me in the giveaway either!

Suey said...

Great review! I enjoyed your question to David and his answer. It's fun to see everyone's response to this book. (Remember I'm another "don't enter me" person!)

Beawhiz said...

Wow. I'm blown away. This sounds sooo interesting. I'm impressed by your willingness to tackle the topic, David! I'm not sure I would have the courage to. What thorny history to wade through. : )

Amanda said...

It sounds like an interesting book. The Mormon beliefs would be interesting to read about, considering their place primarily in our "western" society, but with some quiet different tenants.

Yasmin said...

I would like to win a copy of the 19th Wife because your review was fabulous and made me to want to check out this book.

Dawn said...

You pulled me in again Anna!;O) Please enter me in this contest. I just recently saw a documentary on Brigham Young (The History Channel) and found that I was drawn in and watched the whole thing. It mentioned one of his wives sueing for divorce which I thought was very interesting.
Sooo, I'm adding another to my reading list! :)

Anna said...

Shana: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the review. I could've talked all day about this book, so it was difficult to condense my thoughts. I've been reading the great discussions that have been going on about the book.

Alyce: It is interesting to see the polygamy issue played out in different time periods.

Jeannie: Sounds like this is a book you'd enjoy, and you'd be going into it with a bit of an understanding of their faith. I'd love to talk with you more about genealogy. That's a fascinating subject.

Teddy Rose: Glad you enjoyed the review, and thanks so much for spreading the word about the giveaway! I hope you get a chance to read the book soon!

Mari: I watched a couple episodes of Big Love. It was okay, but I'm not a big tv watcher.

Veens: I think it's great when a historical fiction book makes the subject come to life. The 19th Wife did that for me.

Theresa: David does a great job with the conversion stories of Ann Eliza's parents, especially the scenes when her mother sees Joseph Smith for the first time.

Bermudaonion: Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks as always for stopping by!

Carol: I knew nothing about the Mormons when I started the book, and now I'd like to learn more to separate the fact from the fiction.

Heatherlo: If you love historical fiction, then I'd definitely recommend this book!

Susan: Thanks so much for your kind words about my review, and as always I appreciate you spreading the word about my giveaways!

Amanda Sue: I said this on another blog that was discussing the polygamy issue: My husband might drive me nuts, but I certainly wouldn't want to share him! ;)

Sara: I've seen a lot of good reviews of this book, too. And it didn't disappoint!

Serena: I agree. I know I've read a good book when the characters seem real. But you're right, we have to remember that they're not. Thanks for posting the giveaway!

Tricia: Your kind words mean a lot to me! I'm glad you enjoyed the review!

Jo-Jo: I've always loved historical fiction dealing with wars, but I'm so glad I've branched out. I would've missed out on this great read otherwise!

Keyomi: I've heard that Carolyn Jessop book was good. I'll have to check it out.

A Real Librarian: Thanks! So glad you enjoyed it!

Amber: When I finished the book, the first thing I did was a bit of research to find some facts. I think it's great when historical fiction makes you want to learn more about the real events.

Natasha: Your kind words about my review mean a lot! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Marie: Thanks so much!

Jennifer: Thanks for stopping by my blog and sharing your story! Having been Mormon and left the faith, I'd definitely be curious as to what you think of the book.

Avisannschild: Thanks for the link. I will definitely be checking out your review!

Suey: Glad you enjoyed the post! I've been doing my best to follow the tour as well, and there certainly have been some great discussions.

Beawhiz: It does seem like a major undertaking, doesn't it? But David did a great job!

Amanda: It really made me want a better understanding of the Mormon faith.

Yasmin: Thank you!

Dawn: I would've loved to have seen that documentary. I'll have to look to see if it's on again!

Anonymous said...

Anna - this is a well-done review. You were smart to put the excerpt about historical accuracy in a work of fiction at the top of the post. People should go into the book knowing it's fiction, based on *real* people (in the story of Ann Eliza, that is).

David - fanstasic post, thank you! It was so interesting to learn the steps you took in "channeling" the various historical characters.

And since I've read/reviewed *The 19th Wife*, there's no need to enter my name in the giveaway.

Anonymous said...

I would love to win this book because I am interested in the story line. I have always been intrigued by the Mormon religion and type of "culture" they have.

shelcows AT gmail DOT com

Anonymous said...

I would like to read this book because I am curious about Latter Day Saints religion and poligamy.

Elaine R

Anna said...

Dawn: So glad you enjoyed the review! After some of the discussions I've seen, I thought it was wise to highlight that it is fiction after all. And that was a great guest post, wasn't it? ;)

Shelburns: This book will give you a glimpse of culture, but as I don't know much about the Mormon faith, I can't tell you how much of it is fact.

Elaine: I hope you get a chance to read the book!

darbyscloset said...

I would like to read this book because it is written from the women's point of view vs most books on this subject are written from the mans or an outsiders point of view. Great interview, very insightful to the working of David!
Thank you so much for your time!
darbyscloset at yahoo dot com

Asylumgirl said...

This should be interesting. I've always been intrigued with the Mormon Church and would like to learn more.

deidre_durance at hotmail dot com

The Bookworm said...

Great review and interview Anna.
no need to enter me, but it does sound like an interesting read.

Kristi said...

That was a great review! I love historical fiction and after reading your review, this has gone on my TBR list. I went to church camp as a teenager in the early 80's and actually met a girl who claimed she was Mormon - don't know if whe was telling the truth or just spinning a tale though.. Please enter me in the drawing for this book.

Linda said...

Not only does this book sound interesting, but I'd like to learn more about the Mormon religion. Thanks for the giveaway.

lcbrower at gmail dot com

Tammy said...

I would love to win a copy of this book. I find the subject fascinating!

missporkchop AT yahoo DOT com

Beverly said...

I would like to read this book as I am a big fan of historical fiction - while in the past I have read HF of cultures outside of the US. I think it would be interesting to read about a part of history that we do not like to talk about.

Anna said...

Naida: Thanks!

Darby, Deidre, Kristi, Linda, & Tammy: Thanks for entering!

Beverly: If you'd like to be entered, please come back and provide an email. There was nothing in your profile, and I need a way to contact you if you win! Thanks!

Unknown said...

I'd love to read this- It got such great reviews, and has been constantly out at the library or I would have read it already! I had tried to get an ARC, but it fell through! I'd love a little more insight into this way of life.

Thanks for the chance to win!


lexilibrarian at gmail dot com

Bookfool said...

Is it just me or is that author just so cute you want to pinch his cheeks? Probably just me. Great review, Anna! Please do enter me. I've been hoping to read this one.

bookfoolery at yahoo dot com

Anna said...

Lexis: I hope you get a chance to read it soon. I hate long lines for books at the library! :(

Bookfool: I don't think it's just you. ;) Glad you enjoyed the review!