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THE 19TH WIFE by David Ebershoff

THE 19TH WIFE

By David Ebershoff

Pub Date: Aug. 12th, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6397-0
Publisher: Random House

Ebershoff (Pasadena, 2002, etc.) takes a promising historical premise and runs with it—perhaps a couple of dozen pages too long.

He juxtaposes the world of modern polygamous families down on the remote Utah-Arizona line with the life of a junior wife of 19th-century Mormon patriarch Brigham Young. Junior in terms of both age and pecking order, Annie Young didn’t much like the gig; she renounced life as a plural wife and broke from the church to publish a book about the horrors of polygamy. Her story inspired much antipathy among Young’s anti-Mormon neighbors; Ebershoff borrows elsewhere from history to recapitulate a San Francisco newspaper’s condemnation of Brigham Young as “a confidence man in the grand tradition of the hoodwinkers of the West.” Meanwhile, in the present, a young Mormon man begins to examine the life he is falling away from, returning to the fictitious town of Mesadale, with its “few hundred houses now, warehouses for a family of seventy-five.” (That would be Colorado City, Ariz., in real life—a place that has recently made national news for its polygamous customs.) Things are not as placid and well ordered as they seem in the red-rock plateau country. Young Jordan’s mom, one of several wives, has apparently shot dear old dad as he was simultaneously gambling and recruiting new companionship online. As for Jordan—well, he’s a mess, doing decidedly unsaintly things in order to keep body and soul together. Many histories intertwine in these pages, and many voices are heard from, ranging from the stately cadences of Victorian steel-nib prose to the most modern lingo. (“Manofthehouse2004: where in st george? / ALBIL: u no the Malibu Inn?”) Apostasy and self-discovery ensue.

Reminiscent of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose in scope and ambition, though the narrative sometimes drags.