I read David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife for the first time while moving cross-country in a rented Budget truck with my dad driving and my cat meowing. Needless to say, in order to keep me reading, I needed a book that was enticing enough to hold my attention, even above the meowing. The 19th Wife, with its combination of modern mystery and beautifully written historical fiction, proved to be the book to save my sanity on that never-ending road trip.
One story is told from the point of view of Jordon Scott, who was banished as a teenager from The Firsts, a fundamentalist sect of the Mormon Church. After his banishment, Jordon returns to Utah and The Firsts when his mother, a plural wife, is accused of murdering his father. Jordon’s chapters provide this strong historical fiction with a connection to the modern day, an element that works well to draw readers into some lesser-known parts of history.
While Jordon’s investigation of his father’s murder proves to be a compelling mystery, the part of this book that I found the most captivating was the overlapping story of Ann Eliza Young, the nineteenth wife of Brigham Young. Prior to reading this book, my interest in and knowledge of the founding of the Mormon Church was minimal. What piqued my interest was the real-life story of a woman who left her powerful husband and ultimately played a significant role in changing policy in Washington concerning polygamy. David Ebershoff—who also wrote The Danish Girl, which is about to hit the big screen this fall—has constructed a work of fiction, but he includes detailed accounts of real events and his main character, Ann Eliza, was a real woman who had a significant impact.
This book would not have caught my attention so fully with the Jordon Scott mystery alone. The exploration of the emotions and motivations of those who took part in and witnessed the founding of the Mormon Church made the story come alive to me. The modern mystery was an enticing addition to this little-known piece of history.
Ultimately, despite the near-constant meowing coming from under my seat, I kept reading through Texas, Oklahoma, and Indiana for this stunning illustration of important events that led to the settling of the American West and granting greater rights to women.
Erin Flaaen works in marketing at Simon & Schuster.