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May 5, 2010

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THE 19TH WIFE by author David Ebershoff: a novel based in part on a true story - fascinating read

The practice of “celestial marriage,” as Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith called it, was a central tenet in early Mormonism. Smith and his followers—including Brigham Young, who became the Latter-day Saints’ president and prophet after Smith’s 1844 murder—believed that acquiring multiple wives was a key to their salvation.

Young himself had an estimated 27–56 wives (the number varies depending on changing definitions of “wife” over time), including Ann Eliza (Webb) Young, who was 24 when she married the 67-year-old leader. Claiming spousal neglect and poor treatment, she left the Mormon Church in 1873, filed for divorce, and embarked on a cross-country lecture tour. She also published two memoirs before mysteriously disappearing in 1908.

Ebershoff first learned of Ann Eliza seven years ago while working as publishing director of the Modern Library, the classics imprint of Random House. Inspired by her story, he rewrote Ann Eliza’s autobiography using only her “basic biographical arc” as a guide.

This fictionalized 19th-century memoir is but a fragment of Ebershoff’s 519-page tome. Given equal time is a story of contemporary polygamy—laced within a whodunit. Although the Latter-day Saints abandoned polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah receiving statehood, plural marriage has continued today in splinter groups like Warren Jeffs’s Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Hildale, UT, and Colorado City, AZ. Ebershoff’s protagonist is 20-year-old Jordan Scott, who was excommunicated from the (fictional) fundamentalist sect First Latter-day Saints of Mesadale, AZ, for holding his stepsister’s hand. Living in Los Angeles when he reads online that his father has been murdered and his mother—the 19th wife—was arrested for the crime, Jordan returns to Arizona to unravel what actually happened.

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