Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wednesday Review #1

Last week, I promised to start reviewing a book each week on Wednesdays, and I'm starting to get kind of excited about the project. For one, it will keep me on my goal of reading at least one book a week. More importantly, I believe that the books we read and how we relate or react to them are instrumental in shaping who we are as readers, as writers, and as people. One of the things I love best about my work as a teacher is getting to share books with my students. I guess adding it to my blog means I get to share these books with you.

I promise not to give away more than is given away on the backs of the books without advance warning, so don't be scared to read the reviews even if you haven't read the book. Also, please if you do read the book and have something to say, feel free to comment. And most importantly, if you have a further recommendation for my reading, please also note that in a comment so that I can add that book to my list.

The 19th Wife: A Novel by David Ebershoff tells two stories connected thematically by exploring polygamy in the United States: a historical fiction and modern day murder mystery. The historical fiction narrative is loosely based on the autobiography of Brigham Young's infamous wife-turned-activist, Ann Eliza Young, the Ebershoff fills in some of the details left unexamined by her much hated (at least by Mormons trying to erase the ugly history of their church) tome, Wife No. 19. Set largely against the background of Mormonism's origins in the midwest and their exodus to Utah, the book directly addresses one of the most controversial early practices of the church, polygamy or "plural marriage", under the first two prophets. However, at some point in the book's manufactured historical documents, we pull back and realize we are following the work of a young, feminist, Mormon scholar, Kelly Dee, as she attempts to reconcile the church she knows and loves with its dark past, as criticized by Mrs. Young who turns out to be Kelly's great-great-grandmother.

The modern day scenes center around a break-off polygamist sect (many would say crazy, cult-like sect) called "the Firsts." The main character is a young man who was kicked out of the cult by his own mother for violating the Prophet's will and returns when his mother is accused of the murder of his father. His mother is, interestingly enough, his father's 19th wife. Through him and other characters, we can see the emotional effects on children of polygamy; for although Mrs. Young was passionate in her protestation of the practice, the Mormon church has largely dismissed her as a greedy opportunist who was made rich by exposing the church in a sensationalist manner.

Now, I have a weird fondness for all things Mormon, ever since doing a project about the church for my Comparative Religions class in high school, but I don't think my odd inclination was the only thing that caused me to devour this 500+ page novel. Ebershoff is a gifted writer with an ear for voice and character. Like all good historical fiction writers, he doesn't get too bogged down in the details--the story is always first. Every now and then the story dragged, but never for more than a few pages, which is impressive in such an academically-oriented and long book.

I say, give it a read. Especially if you have any curiosity about religions in America or the history of the western states.


  1. I'm LDS and served a mission in Daejeon on 92-93 (back when we were Romanizing it as "Taejon.") and got to go back later and teach English with my husband. I miss it something awful!

    There are a fair number of Mormons in Korea, too. (About 80,000 members?) I've been following the blog of a sister missionary who was just transferred from Daegu to Ulsan a few weeks ago.

  2. For history of the western states, I recently listened to a book about the building of the transcontinental railroad: I did think the author was somewhat biased (e.g. regarding treatment of Chinese workers), and it wasn't excellent, but overall it was interesting. The Mormons pop up in it, too. (They were very much for the building of the railroad, since they wanted Salt Lake City to be accessible and to grow.)

  3. Helena,

    I've always been curious about the language training Mormon missionaries are given here because whenever I see them on the subway, their Korean is quite good. (And they're always dressed up so nice!) And of course, I'm sure you're aware that it's the fastest growing religion in the world, therefore I'm not at all surprised there are a large number of Korean Mormons.

    Eli--It's funny, but there's a whole chapter (probably not completely accurate) about one of Ann Eliza Young's brothers who was cheated on a contract by Brigham Young for laying telephone lines, but I have no doubt Brigham Young had his hand in many other developments, such as the rail. He was quite ambitious when it came to expansion and pioneering.



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