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One among many

Ann Eliza Young, known popularly as the 19th wife of Brigham Young, not only divorced the Mormon prophet but stumped the country campaigning against polygamy. In her acidic memoir and critique of plural marriage, "Wife No. 19, or the Story of a Life in Bondage" (1876), she wrote scathingly of Mormon founder Joseph Smith's "famous Revelation" endorsing the practice as the will of God, for "giving the most unbridled license to all the worst passions" of men's natures:

"Its existence was denied loudly, if in any way a whisper of it reached the outside world, and the missionaries were cautioned to keep utter silence upon the subject. Among the Saints it was received most reluctantly. The women, especially, felt that a cross was being laid upon them greater than they could bear, and many openly rebelled."

Pinpointing the first tendrils of polygamy in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints is a slippery enterprise—Ann Eliza claims that Smith first publicly floated the idea at a sermon in 1840, only to retract it the following week; Fawn Brodie, in a footnote in her classic biography of Smith, "No Man Knows My History," cites evidence of an unpublished revelation foreshadowing polygamy as early as 1831; Leonard Arrington, in his "Brigham Young: American Moses," says Smith "unquestionably began to introduce the principle" to associates as of 1841. Suffice it to say that polygamy was an early and persistent article of the faith, proclaimed publicly as doctrine by Brigham Young in 1852 but disavowed by the LDS in1890—although it has been adhered to since by breakaway believers from mainstream Mormonism, known variously as Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints or First Latter-Day Saints. It was from such an FLDS community, in fact, the Yearning for Zion Ranch, that the state of Texas seized 468 children in April, on the basis of a phone tip and fears that underaged, forced marriages or other abuses were taking place (a court later determined that the state's blanket action exceeded its authority).

Welcome to David Ebershoff's new novel "The 19th Wife," in which he reprises the voice of Ann Eliza Young and compounds the account of her life with a story line centered on a contemporary polygamous community in the southern Utah desert, a self-isolated town called Mesadale, complete with its own powerful Prophet. Consider the novel a plural marriage itself, as its disparate parts, varied in origin and temperament, struggle for compatibility under the same roof.

We can assume, from the uncanny way that Ebershoff's present-day story line echoes themes raised by his version of Ann Eliza Young, that the two principal narratives are meant to reinforce each other, across time and circumstance. And if one refracted the other significantly, rather than simply mirroring its counterpart, that might have been the case. Unfortunately, it is not. The breezy voice of the would-be hip, 20-year-old, gay, excommunicated FLDS narrator, onetime Mesadale resident Jordan Scott, whose mother was his father's 19th wife (!), seldom achieves the achingly beautiful earnestness and passion that comes to infuse parts of Ebershoff's historical story line late in the novel, leaving present-day portions of "The 19th Wife" rather attenuated in comparison.

Accentuating the gap in emotional weight between Ebershoff's story lines is a fundamental difference in his approach: Jordan narrates the Mesadale events, which play out as a murder mystery but are not otherwise "interrogated," to borrow a word from academe, or called into question. What you see is what you get. Did Jordan's mother, BeckyLyn Scott, shoot his father dead with a Golden Boy .22 or not? He determines to find out, although, having been kicked out of Mesadale at age 14, dropped off by mom at the side of a highway at the prophet's insistence, that might prove difficult.

Ann Eliza Young's determination of facts, however, is subject to debate from several points of view. Ebershoff not only presents "her" voice in his narration (he seems to have tempered her flame a bit yet is generally faithful to the vigor of the original) but interleaves sections of her father's autobiography, which quibble with her claims; a deposition of her brother Gilbert, submitted in her divorce trial from Brigham; reporting from a graduate student researching Ann Eliza's mother, Elizabeth Churchill Webb, who includes descriptions taken from Gilbert's diary and direct quotation from the historical Ann Eliza Young; an introduction to "Wife No. 19" as written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, drawing comparisons between polygamy and slavery; an account by Brigham Young of his overnight imprisonment for contempt of court; letters from one of Ann Eliza's two sons to a historian asking for biographical information; and the transcript of an interview of Brigham Young that appeared in the New York Herald in 1843.

The cultural artifacts above—depositions, introductions, etc.—are fictional, although the student's research allows Ebershoff to display Ann Eliza's voice both as rendered by him and with perfect fidelity to the original, in snatches of quotation. Keep in mind, as Ann Eliza's son Lorenzo remarks, "History has one flaw. It is a subjective art," ] especially when it is novelized history. Ebershoff sets the New York Herald interview by "Howard Greenly" in 1843, for example, before Brigham Young had declared anything publicly about polygamy, and in the novel's interview Young denies that his followers practice it. Ebershoff modeled it on a famous interview of Young by Horace Greeley, published in 1859, when Young could and did freely admit to it and declared that women "generally accept it, as I do, as the will of God."

Ebershoff begins with the modern. Jordan's non-dear old dad (screen name: Manofthehouse2004) is shot to death in his computer room, after mentioning in an IM chat the arrival of wife "#19." His mother is promptly arrested for the crime. There is not a great deal of love lost, as they say. Jordan describes his father as "a religious con man, a higher-up in a church of lies, the kind of schemer who goes around saying God meant for man to have many women and children and that they shall be judged on how they obey." He tells the lawyer he visits on his mother's behalf—convinced, visiting her in jail, that she may be innocent—that his expulsion from Mesadale was "[j]ust your regular run-of-the-mill polygamist boo-hoo tragedy," precipitated by being caught alone with a step-sister. An unfortunate byproduct of his upbringing is that "I have no idea how many brothers and sisters I have. There isn't a good way to count. ... I'm going to guess I have a hundred siblings, maybe one-ten."

Throughout the historical sections, Ann Eliza blazes a frontal attack on polygamy, and because of it, Mormonism. "So often plural marriage reduces a thoughtful, generous, mature woman to a sniveling, selfish little girl. Perhaps it is the cruelest outcome: the removal, and destruction, of a woman's dignity," she comments. Elsewhere, when Brigham announced that after a period of three months' secrecy he was willing to make their marriage public and was resituating her residence, she "came to understand that I would lead a lonely existence here. ... I did not have a husband in any sense of the word. I was neither maiden, widow, nor even divorcee," but existed in a "conjugal purgatory."

Poignant notes in "The 19th Wife" are generally limited to the historical sections (Jordan's peregrinations exhibit a more playful and culturally flip approach, owing to his voice, as he meets other young FLDS escapees or castouts). Elizabeth Webb, Ann Eliza's mother, turns her back on her daughter in a farewell letter that was to be carried in Ann Eliza's pocket for years. Ann Eliza's father, Chauncey Webb, with her book beside his writing table as he pens his autobiography, quotes from her, that her "greatest disappointment has been in realizing that my father, like Joseph and Brigham before him, tried to shroud his passions in the mantle of religion." And he writes, "She is correct. My deceit has separated us. And yet some truths come too late." Her brother Gilbert, deeply in debt to Brigham, blames himself for Ann Eliza's fateful marriage, seeing it as a sacrifice to help him, "and for this I've never felt more ashamed."

Brigham Young, writing in prison—it was only a night, for refusing to pay settlement fees a court had demanded go to Ann Eliza—contends that it is a "misperception" that his failed marriage with her has consumed him deeply, for "Ann Eliza does not hold such a commanding position in my thoughts." He refuses to announce the count of his wives because that would "feed the imagination of the profane," and in any event, "Wife is an inadequate term, for each woman plays a different role in my life, just as each person plays a different role in all our lives. ... We label them all wives, but they are not all wives." Perhaps old polygamists never die, they just fade away in one sense or another. Polygamous fates: Writing in 1939, Ann Eliza's son Lorenzo sees her in retrospect as "a brave fool," and her mysterious disappearance after 1908 "a dismal twist at the end of an epic tale."

Jordan, still on the trail of his father's murderer, tracks down a person who had chatted on line with his dad. "I bet he didn't tell you he had more than twenty wives," Jordan says.

"I never chat with married men," the woman replies. "Wait a minute! Was he that Gulf War vet with that strange disease?"

"No," Jordan said.

The 19th WifeBy David EbershoffRandom House, 514 pages, $26

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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