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.


Alice said...

I just wanted to leave a comment and let you know that I love this blog. I read 45 degrees all the time, and love it too. But needed to say thanks for this. I am a self proclaimed "new literature hater" but I love books and get kind of obsessive when I find one I like. Entering a giant bookstore or library gives me overwhelming angst when I have to decide on one or several new books to try out. I usually just go w/ the classics, or what I've already read a hundred times before or just get a magazine. I have been seriously trying to break out of my mold, and try something new. (my two sisters in law are librarians and silently judge me for my distaste for new fiction, neither is ever w/o several new books they are currently loving) Enter this blog. I have read book thief and history of love and I adored them. I love your reviews of all the books on here and will keep checking out the recommended reading. People's aesthetics can be wildly different, so what one person loves, another may not,that said, from you writing voice, and your discussions of why you enjoy certain books, and not others, I think we are kind of compatible book-wise! Thanks so much for helping this new-fiction-challenged reader! oh and have fun at blogher, chicago is a great town.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't find your email online so I figured I'd try posting a comment here...

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Poppy Q said...

Hi Sarah, I have just found your blog tonight and am enjoying reading about all the books you have read.

I don't know how you manage the time to read with kids, I don't have any, and struggle to get one or two books read a week.

However, cold and rainy holidays this weekend should help increase the numbers.

julie q