Historical novels tend to have an informative, dry tone, dragging on about facts, figures and death without a necessary compelling interest to keep reading.
David Ebershoff breaks such mold, however, successfully combining the endearing aspects of a fiction novel with facts reminiscent of history with his novel “The 19th Wife.”
The book follows the life of Ann Eliza Young briefly before and during marriage and also her divorce from the infamous leader of the Latter Day Saints movement, Brigham Young.
Ebershoff describes Ann Eliza’s attempts to end polygamy in the U.S. after her divorce from Brigham, all the while exploring exactly how she became a plural wife to begin with.
Each captivating chapter follows a different character and jumps chronologically in time, giving readers an overview of the church’s history between Ann Eliza’s time and modern day.
At times, however, the jumping can be confusing, with the novel opening with Ann Eliza’s life. The beginning of the novel quickly shifts to a modern-day Mormon family, with their issues portrayed through the perspective of Jordan Scott.
Jordan, a gay teenager, finds himself excommunicated from the church. Questions about the motivation of the Mormon religion are raised through a modern day depiction, culminating with the shocking account of Jordan’s mother dropping him off on the side of the road and wishing him luck at the age of 13.
Ebershoff effectively narrates on multiple lives, laying out the reasoning behind the ideas of such an influential religion.
When Jordan discovers that his mother has been charged with the murder of his father, he attempts to return to his hometown in southern Utah. His attempts prove difficult as his relationship with his estranged family is known throughout the town.
Through the difficulties Jordan faces when he returns, Ebershoff paints a picture of the life in a Mormon community and what happens if one is no longer involved.
Each story opens new aspects of the Church of Latter Day Saints, verifying and nullifying rumors surrounding the religion. A historical account of the beginning of the religion and a short rundown of the creation of polygamy put the issues of love and faith in perspective in terms of Mormon beliefs in the 1800s.
This, contrasted with the modern day issues that are befalling Jordan, create an intensely complex storyline that suggests readers should consider the nuances of the religion independently.
Rather than encourage a reader to prejudge Mormonism, Ebershoff opens a pathway of discussion about religion in general. Exploring faith through the beliefs of a controversial religion opens doors for discovering the background of all faith, why humans have it and why they express it in completely individual ways.
The added suspense of a murder mystery only adds to the already interesting novel, transforming it from a simple account of Mormon history into a compelling tale.
Book reviewer Kelly Bleck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.