Best Book of the Week!
The 19th Wife is actually two interleaved novels, one as interesting as the other. The novel that begins the book is a modern mystery. The novel that dominates the book, however, is historical, about Ann Elizabeth Young, Brigham Young’s 19th wife, whose lectures after she left the Latter-Day Saints were partially responsible for ending the authorized practice of polygamy within the church.
In the modern story, Jordan Scott is a young man who grew up with the Firsts, a fundamentalist Mormon group that still practices polygamy. At the age of 14, Jordan was booted out on his own because he held his stepsister Queenie’s hand. Jordan’s intentions were not amorous, because he is gay, but he realizes that the young men are ejected from the group so that the old men can keep the young girls for themselves.
Jordan is living in California when he reads that his father has been murdered and his mother, Becky Lynn, arrested for it. As his mother is a complete believer who actually dumped him out on the highway herself those years ago, he does not believe she murdered his father. The evidence against her is that another wife saw her coming from their husband’s room looking upset. Jordan’s father was texting someone just before he was killed and remarked that his 19th wife was at the door. That wife is Becky Lynn.
While Jordan tries to find out what happened that night, we read the story of Ann Elizabeth Young, a woman born into the Church of Latter Day Saints but who has always been clear on the evils of the practice of polygamy. This story is told through fictional excerpts from her autobiography, newspaper clippings, statements by Brigham Young, and other documents.
Ann Elizabeth begins with the story of how her own parents, once devoted to each other, were forced into polygamy by Brigham Young, and what pain it caused her mother every time her husband took another wife. This pain was amplified by the hypocritical ruling that the first wife had to accept all future wives into the household before further marriages could take place. Ann Elizabeth’s own first marriage is also marred by threats of polygamy, which her husband uses to manipulate her despite having promised before marriage not to practice it.
Well written and convincingly characterized, this novel is absolutely engrossing. Although I found the modern mystery interesting in its insights into fundamentalist Mormonism as currently practiced, I found the story of Ann Elizabeth’s life even more compelling. Ever since reading Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, I have been fascinated by this subject.