Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Woman's Worth

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff, is two stories intertwined to illustrate the history of polygamy in the Mormon church. Seen through the eyes of Brigham Young's rebellious 19th wife, Anne Eliza, in the late 1800's, and also in the present, through the eyes of a young man who's mother is the 19th wife of a prominent Firsts member (the branch of Mormon that maintained polygamy after the church officially banned it), the novel reveals the struggle and despair of life in the church and it's practice of plural marriage.

Written to be part historical research and part murder mystery, the novel has pretty much every element a reader could want. Anne Eliza's story reveals both the anguish of being a plural wife--not only sharing a husband's affection, but his resources and, at times, his basic good will, and also the strength and power of the feminine spirit. Jordan Scott, excommunicated as a young man from the fundmentalist sect of the Firsts, digs through the society's secrets to clear his mother of a murder charge.

What I loved about this book, aside from the characters (in particular Anne Eliza) was the questions it raised about a person's beliefs and to what length one would go to uphold those beliefs. And how do we come to embrace our belief systems in the first place? Sitting on the outside of this community, we shake our heads and say, "I could never, ever believe that being one of 50+ wives is what's going to ensure my happiness in the afterlife". It's absurd to even contemplate. But the book makes note, over and over again, that this is the only message young women in the society in question ever heard. To think beyond that was just, well, unthinkable.

What infuriated me about this book was the idea that, while a man married to many wives was considered more of a man, the wives were disposable. When a husband grew tired of a wife, he simply "stopped visiting" her. She remained married to him, bound to him as property, but no longer required or received any of his attention or resources.

The book made me think about the polygamist ranch in Texas that was in the news last year. And how all those children were taken from their parents. And then returned. But to what? We've heard nothing of them since, have we? I shudder to think at what their lives are today. I shudder to think this still goes on in parts of our country today.