Saturday, September 03, 2011
Book Review: The 19th Wife....
This was first published in Secular Humanist Briefs, a newsletter of the Council of Secular Humanism.
The 19th Wife
a novel by David Ebershoff
Published by Random House 2008
An Irreverent look at Mormons and their weird church
Religions fascinate atheists and skeptics. The 19th Wife, a novel covering the antics of Mormons of the nineteenth and of the twenty-first centuries, will do more than fascinate you. It will grab you and refuse to let go.
All Christian religions stress taking things on faith and come up with some strange beliefs. But the Mormons! That religion is a wonderment unto itself. In less than a couple centuries the Saints came up with as many impossible ideas as had the Catholic Church in twenty.
Joseph Smith threw out most of the irrational Christian ideas and replaced them with a new set of even more irrational ones. None were tested by dispassionate examination. Religious things are above that with the old "higher power" copout they all claim guides their lives.
Books critical of the Mormon church such as Trouble Enough by Ernest Taves, Secret Ceremonies by Deborah Laake, and A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tell compelling stories of a strange religion. But none impressed me as did the tale by David Ebershoff. He told the story of Ann Eliza Young, Brigham's nineteenth, or, maybe fifty-fourth wife..
Ann divorced her husband and asked for money from him, possibly the richest man in the country. The resulting tumult resulted in polygamy being banned.
Ebershoff not only told the story of Ms. Young, he told it convincingly from the viewpoints of herself, her mother, her father, Brigham Young, and a young twenty-first century man who was excommunicated by later version of the church which insisted it was the first.
The 19th Wife keeps the reader on his toes by shifting from one point of view to another, one story line to another, and by moving between the mid 19th century to the 21st. century Somehow Ebershoff does a superb job of it.
The reader's hardest job is to keep track of the century and the narrator. It is a culture shock to leave the 19th century with the problems of a young, pious 19th century polygamous bride, then try to empathize with a 21st century young, recalcitrant, excommunicated, Mormon who is trying to save his mom from execution for killing his dad.
The book is rightly described as a page turner, so finishing a chapter isn't hard. What's hard is to resist starting the next where the reader will land in a different century and in the mind of a different point of view. Bring along the forbidden drink, coffee, because you'll read longer than you planned. and find yourself still reading far into the morning.
Although his life is the secondary story line Jordan Scott, the young recalcitrant guy, is the most compelling character in the book. As a doddering geezer I take a perverse delight in imaginative cussing. Thus I laughed when Jordan used the term "fuck log" to describe the notes his father kept to remind himself who was the next wife he'd sleep with. And for empathy we can feel Jordan's discomfort in explaining the term to his pious mother.
If a humanist or skeptics group had a list of "must read" books, this one would be near the top. As with Huckleberry Finn and all other great novels it is much more than a good story. It takes the gentiles, as we're called, inside a church recently created out of whole cloth and lets us see the damage done by deliberate ignorance.
//Keith Taylor is a former president and program chair for the San Diego Association for Rational Inquiry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org //