A Hefty But Informative Page-Turner

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff (Random House, 2008, 514pp.)

A vast and weighty novel, The 19th Wife is a fictional treatise on the unique history of polygamy in Utah. Using two different storylines (one in the past, one in the present), it explores the experiences of the major historical players involved in the fracturing of the Mormon church, and beyond. In the historical storyline, we witness the 1875 divorce and excommunication of Ann Eliza Young, the last wife taken by polygamist Brigham Young. Her subsequent quest to end polygamy brings her to the steps of the White House, where she manages to convince President Grant to declare war on Utah's marital "Barbarism."

Fast-forward to present day. In the isolated, polygamy-practicing desert community of Mesadale, one of the town bigshots has been murdered. Suspicion soon falls on BeckyLyn, or Wife #19, as the victim knew her. After she is arrested as the case's prime suspect, the news filters down to her son, Jordan, who was excommunicated from the community six years before when he was caught holding a girl's hand in public. Although he resents his mother for not standing up for him in his time of need, he doesn't believe her capable of murder, and returns to his birthplace to help clear her name.

The 19th Wife is told in a variety of different voices, including that of Jordan, Ann Eliza, and even--for one surprising chapter--Brigham Young himself. Although the novel is ultimately dominated by Jordan's and Ann Eliza's opinions, the author at least takes the pains to avoid white-washing the whole issue. He confronts Jordan's bitterness towards religion with a Brigham Young University student, whose faith fills her with a kind of joy, and allows Brigham a chance (through the pages of a prison diary) to explain himself. Although it's a bit hefty at 500 pages, I found Ebershoff's novel to be an informative and entertaining page-turner, sure to please fans of Jodi Picoult's issue-driven novels, as well as bookclubs everywhere.