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The 19th Wife: A Novel
by David Ebershoff

Published: 2009-06-02
Paperback : 514 pages
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It is 1875, and Ann Eliza Young has recently separated from her powerful husband, Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon Church. Expelled and an outcast, Ann Eliza embarks on a crusade to end polygamy in the United States. A rich account of her family’s polygamous history is revealed, ...
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It is 1875, and Ann Eliza Young has recently separated from her powerful husband, Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon Church. Expelled and an outcast, Ann Eliza embarks on a crusade to end polygamy in the United States. A rich account of her family’s polygamous history is revealed, including how both she and her mother became plural wives. Yet soon after Ann Eliza’s story begins, a second exquisite narrative unfolds–a tale of murder involving a polygamist family in present-day Utah. Jordan Scott, a young man who was thrown out of his fundamentalist sect years earlier, must reenter the world that cast him aside in order to discover the truth behind his father’s death. And as Ann Eliza’s narrative intertwines with that of Jordan’s search, readers are pulled deeper into the mysteries of love, family, and faith.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


Chapter One


In the one year since I renounced my Mormon faith, and set out to tell the nation the truth about American polygamy, many people have wondered why I ever agreed to become a plural wife. Everyone I meet, whether farmer, miner, railman, professor, cleric, or the long-faced Senator, and most especially the wives of these-everyone wants to know why I would submit to a marital practice so filled with subjugation and sorrow. When I tell them my father has five wives, and I was raised to believe plural marriage is the will of God, these sincere people often ask, But Mrs. Young-how could you believe such a claim?

Faith, I tell them, is a mystery, elusive to many, and never easy to explain.

Now, with the publication of this autobiography, my enemies will no doubt suspect my motives. Having survived attempts on both my life and character, however, I stand unconcerned by their assaults. I have chosen to commit my memories to the page neither for fame, the trough from which I have drunk and would be happy never to return to, nor fortune, although it is true I am without home and have two small boys to care for. Simply, I wish to expose the tragic state of polygamy's women, who must live in a bondage not seen in this country since the abolishment of slavery a decade ago; and to reveal the lamentable situation of its children, lonely as they are.

I promise my Dear Reader I shall recount my story truthfully, even when it distresses me to do so. In these pages you will come to know my mother, who by religious duty welcomed four wives into her husband's bed. You will encounter the old woman forced to share her husband with a girl one-fifth her age. And you shall meet the gentleman with so many wives that when one approaches him on the street, he answers, "Madame, do I know you?"

I can, and will, go on.

Under what circumstances does such outrage thrive? The Territory of Utah, glorious as it may be, spiked by granite peaks and red jasper rocks, cut by echoing canyons and ravines, spread upon a wide basin of gamma grass and wandering streams, this land of blowing snow and sand, of iron, copper, and the great salten sea-Utah, whose scarlet-golden beauty marks the best of God's handiwork-the Territory of Utah stands defiant as a Theocracy within the borders of our beloved Democracy, imperium in imperio.

I write not for sensation, but for Truth. I leave judgment to the hearts of my good Readers everywhere. I am but one, yet to this day countless others lead lives even more destitute and enslaved than mine ever was. Perhaps my story is the exception because I escaped, at great risk, polygamy's conjugal chains; and that my husband is the Mormon Church's Prophet and Leader, Brigham Young, and I am his 19th, and final, wife.

Sincerely Yours,

Ann Eliza Young

Summer 1874

Wife #19:

A Desert Mystery

By Jordan Scott


Her Golden Boy

According to the St. George Register, on a clear night last June, at some time between eleven and half-past, my mom-who isn't anything like this-tiptoed down to the basement of the house I grew up in with a Golden Boy .22 in her hands. At the foot of the stairs she knocked on the door to my dad's den. From inside he called who is it? She answered me, BeckyLyn. He said-or must've said-come in. What happened next? Nearly everyone in southwest Utah can tell you. She nailed an ace shot and blew his heart clean from his chest. The paper says he was in his computer chair, and from the way the blood splattered the drywall they're pretty sure the blast spun him three times around.

At the time of his death my dad was online playing Texas hold em and chatting with three people, including someone named DesertMissy. He spent the final seconds of his life in this exchange:

Manofthehouse2004: hang on

DesertMissy: phone?

Manofthehouse2004: no my wife

DesertMissy: which one?

Manofthehouse2004: #19

Sometime later-a few seconds? minutes?-DesertMissy wrote: u there??

Later she tried again: u there????

Eventually she gave up. They always do.

When my mom pulled the trigger my dad had a full house, three fives and a pair of ducks. He was all in. The paper says although dead, he ended up winning seven grand.

I once heard someone on tv say we die as we lived. That sounds about right. After my dad was shot the blood seeped across his gunsandammo.com t-shirt in a heavy stain. He was sixty-seven, his face pre-cancerously red. Everything about him was thick and worn from a life boiled by the sun. When I was a kid I used to dream he was a cowboy. I would imagine him out in the barn saddling his roan with the white socks, readying himself for a ride of justice. But my dad never rode anywhere for justice. He was 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 they shall be judged on how they obey. I know people don't really talk like that, but he did and so do a lot of the men where I come from, which is-let's just say-way the fuck out in the desert. You might've heard of us. The First Latter-day Saints, but everyone knows us as the Firsts. I should tell you right off we weren't Mormons. We were something else-a cult, a cowboy theocracy, a little slice of Saudi America. We've been called everything. I know all that because I left six years ago. That was the last time I saw my dad. My mom too. I know you know this but just in case: she was wife #19.

His first wife was more than willing to put the rap on my mom. For someone who wasn't supposed to talk to nonbelievers, Sister Rita had no trouble telling the Register everything. "I was up in the keeping room with the girls' hose," she blabbed to the paper. "That's when I saw her come upstairs. She had one of those faces-it looked funny, all squished up and red, like she'd seen something. I thought about asking but I didn't, I don't know why. I found him about twenty minutes after that when I went down myself. I should've gone down the minute I saw that face of hers, but how was I supposed to know? When I saw him in his chair like that, with his head, you know, just hanging in his chest like that, and all that blood-it was everywhere, I mean all over him, everything so, so wet, and red-well I started calling, just calling out to anyone for help. That's when they came running down, all of them, the women I mean, one after the next, the kids too, they kept coming. The house shook, there were so many running down the stairs. The first to get there was Sister Sherry, I think. When I told her what happened, and then she saw for herself, she started crying, screaming really, and the next one, she started crying too, and then the next after her, and so on. I never heard anything like it. The shrieks spread up the line, like fire, catching and spreading, one after the next and pretty soon it seemed the whole house was on fire with screams, if you know what I mean. You see, we all loved him just the same."

The next morning the Lincoln County sheriff handcuffed my mom: "You'll have to come with me, Sister." I don't know who called him in, he usually didn't get out to Mesadale. There's a picture of her being guided into the backseat of the cruiser-the rope of her braid flat against her back as she ducks in. The paper says she didn't resist. Tell me about it. She didn't resist when her husband married her fifteen-year-old niece. She didn't resist when the Prophet told her to throw me out. "No point in making a fuss"-she used to say that all the time. For years she was obedient, believing it part of her salvation. Then one day I guess she went pop! That's how these things go, you hear about it all the time. Except because of the suppressor it was probably more like a phump! than a pop!

Did Sister Rita do her in? Actually, it was the chat session. The Register loved the irony: VICTIM NAMES HIS MURDERER BEFORE SHE PULLS THE TRIGGER. Technically he didn't name her, he numbered her. But really, Rita's statement didn't help either. It gave the sheriff enough. The next day my mom was booked and that picture was up on the Register's home page, my mom sliding into the cruiser, her hair a heavy chain.

That's how I found out. I was at the library with my friend Roland. We were tooling around the web, checking out nothing in particular, then all of a sudden there it was, the story about my mom:


Sign of Strife in Renegade Sect?

In the picture she's shackled at the wrists. Her forehead is white and glossy, reflecting a camera's flash in the dawn, and she has a look in her eyes. How to describe it? Should I say her eyes were dark and damp, the eyes of a small snouted animal? Or will you know what I mean if I say she had the scared-shitless look of a woman busted for murder and about to spend the rest of her life in the can?

Excerpted from The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff Copyright © 2008 by David Ebershoff. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the publisher:

1. The first part of the novel, “Two Wives,” contains prefaces to two very different books. What did you think when you started reading The 19th Wife? Which story interested you the most?

2. Ann Eliza Young says, “Faith is a mystery.” How does Ebershoff play with this metaphor? What are the mysteries in The 19th Wife? What does the novel say about faith?

3. What are your impressions of Ann Eliza Young, and how do those impressions change over the course of the novel? Do you trust her as a narrator?

4. Brigham Young was one of the most dynamic and complex figures in nineteenth-century America. How does the novel portray him? Do you come to understand his deep convictions? In the story of his marriage to Ann Eliza, he essentially gets the last word. Why?

5. What kind of man is Chauncey Webb? And Gilbert? What do they tell you about polygamy? And about faith?

6. Jordan is an unlikely detective. What makes him a good sleuth? What are his blind spots?

7. Many of the people who help Jordan–Mr. Heber, Maureen, Kelly, and Tom–are Mormons. What do you think Ebershoff is saying by this?

8. Like many mysteries, Jordan’s story is a quest. What is he searching for?

9. Why do you think Ebershoff wrote the novel with so many voices? How do the voices play off one another? Who is your favorite narrator? And your least favorite?

10. Why do you think Ebershoff wrote a fictional memoir by Ann Eliza Young, and why are some chapters missing? As he says in his Author’s Note, the real Ann Eliza Young actually wrote two memoirs: Wife No. 19, first published in 1875, and Life in Mormon Bondage, which came out in 1908. Based on your reading of The 19th Wife, what kind of memoirist do you think the real Ann Eliza Young was?

11. One reviewer has said The 19th Wife is “that rare book that effortlessly explicates and entertains all at once.” Do you agree? How does the novel manage this balance?

12. Were you surprised by how the stories of Ann Eliza and Jordan come together? At what point were you able to see the connection?

13. Does Jordan’s story end as you hoped it would? Does it end as Jordan hoped it would?

14. What do you think ultimately happened to Ann Eliza Young?

Suggested by Members

How close all to truth is the historical fiction?
How true is the present-day story?
by ebach (see profile) 04/08/16

What other religions do you think have practices or beliefs that have been equally controversial?
by Juliehoffman (see profile) 01/17/12

What is your understanding of the role of polygamy in the early church?
Was the prophet, Joseph Smith, being self-centered or selfless in his revelation of "celestial marriage?"
Is this religion an example of misogny? Why are women "dominated?"
by nbknight (see profile) 09/14/11

the discussion will take off on it's own without any guide necessary, i guarantee it.
by NewMexicoTam (see profile) 01/15/10

The questions at the back of the book were very good.
by gazzingo (see profile) 10/23/09

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

author interview

A Conversation with David Ebershoff

Random House Readers Circle: How did you first encounter the story of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, and what drew you to her story?

David Ebershoff: I first heard about Ann Eliza Young several years ago while editing a book for the Modern Library. I had hired a scholar–a specialist in nineteenth-century women’s history–to write a set of end notes for a classic we were reissuing. History geek that I am, one afternoon I was gabbing with her about all sorts of nineteenth-century arcana when she mentioned the 19th wife. The 19th what? The scholar gave me a brief introduction to Ann Eliza Young. Needless to say, my writer’s ears stood up.

At the time I was working on another novel, one that I would ultimately put aside to write The 19th Wife. For a few years, while my attention was elsewhere, that nickname–the 19th wife–continued to ring in my head. The 19th wife? Who was she? What does it even mean to be a 19th wife? After a few years I started looking into that question. As I read more about Ann Eliza Young, I recognized how remarkable she was: intelligent, outspoken, declarative, contradictory, somewhat unreliable, a tad melodramatic, very beautiful (and a little bit vain)–she possessed a number of traits that can make a character in a novel unpredictable, and therefore interesting. I found myself torn between the novel I was working on and a nearly overwhelming desire to throw myself into the world of Ann Eliza and polygamy. Then one night I woke up–literally sat up in bed–and I knew I had to write this book. Just one problem: What book was I going to write? How would I tell her story? And how to make it relevant to today? It took a long, unsettling year of research and thinking before I could begin actually writing.

RHRC: This book intertwines historical narratives of Ann Eliza’s life and a contemporary narrative set on a polygamous compound in Utah. How did you research both the historical narrative and the contemporary story?

DE: The research for the historical narrative started with Ann Eliza herself. She wrote two autobiographies, Wife No. 19 (1875) and Life in Mormon Bondage (1908). Wife No. 19 was a hugely successful book in its day and helped shape the national debate about polygamy. It would also become an important part of Ann Eliza’s legacy. By the time she published her second book, she had fallen into obscurity. That book had a very small printing (fewer than one thousand copies, as far as I can tell) and received little notice–a pity, because the second book in some ways shows Ann Eliza as more thoughtful and self-aware. These books are the inevitable place to begin when thinking about Ann Eliza and her life, and I couldn’t have written my novel without them.

But Ann Eliza’s record doesn’t stop with her memoirs. In fact, it doesn’t even begin with them. After leaving her husband and apostatizing from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she went on a national speaking tour that lasted more than a decade. She wrote a suite of three long lectures about her life as a Latter-day Saint and her experiences as a plural wife. By the time she published her first book, tens of thousands of people (including members of Congress and President Grant) had heard her story, or read about it in the newspapers, which followed her closely. From 1873 to 1875, Ann Eliza Young was national news. The beautiful, strong-willed, articulate young woman who had defied her husband and prophet fascinated Americans everywhere. Many newspapers covered her story and her divorce with tabloid interest. Some of the news stories about Ann Eliza remind me of some of the recent reporting on today’s polygamists in Utah, Arizona, and Texas.

After spending a lot of time reading about Ann Eliza, I saw that there were three essential parts to her story: her life, her book, and her legacy. I wanted to write about her in a way that captures those three elements: to tell the story of the life she lived, to give the reader a sense of Wife No. 19’s impact on her life and the national debate, and to contemplate her legacy by rendering what she did and did not achieve. This is why I wrote a part of the novel as her “memoir”–and why there is a “book” within the book. (Forgive me; I’m usually not this meta.) This is why I start The 19th Wife with a title page similar to Ann Eliza’s actual title page, but just as you think you are settling into one kind of story, the novel cuts sharply into something else.

I wrote the contemporary narrative–“Wife #19,” or Jordan’s story–with a phone, a notebook, and a rental car. I visited the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. The first time there I was driving up and down the streets, looking at the unusually large houses and the vegetable patches and the horse corrals, just taking it all in, when I looked in my rearview mirror and noticed a police cruiser behind me. I turned down a side street and he turned as well. Was he following me? I turned again, and he turned again, and then again. I instinctively knew the cop wanted me to leave. He tailed me all the way back to Highway 59, and as I drove off he idled on the side of the road, making sure I was gone. I could hardly believe it: in the United States, in the twenty-first century, I had just been driven out of town.

I ended up interviewing several people who had once been part of polygamous families–women who had left their husbands, and boys and young men who had been excommunicated. Each told a variation of the same story: a dominant theology, a bounty of wives, a life of loneliness, intimidation, and fear. It was fascinating and heartbreaking, and each time I heard one of these stories I thought of Ann Eliza–how she thought she had brought an end to polygamy in the United States, but in fact had not. It’s worth noting that not all American polygamists today live in the notorious isolated compounds that we’ve seen in the news lately. I even interviewed one woman who lived in suburban Pennsylvania with her husband, her two sister wives, and their ten children. It’s also worth noting that many plural wives claim to be happy in their lives.

RHRC: How closely does Ann Eliza’s story in The 19th Wife follow what we actually know about her?

DE: There are certain chapters of her life about which we know very little. For example, her relationship with her sons. She has relatively few words concerning them in her memoirs, lectures, newspaper interviews, and other public statements. And so I fill that in, both by giving voice to her second son in Part XVI and, in the parts narrated by Ann Eliza herself, having her contemplate plural marriage and its effects on her boys.

Other aspects of her life are widely known. These tend to be about Ann Eliza’s relationship to Brigham and the Church. With these topics, The 19th Wife follows the public record fairly closely, for two reasons: one, these tend to be the most contentious parts of her story, and two, we have multiple sources on many of these events. For example, in The 19th Wife there is a scene in the Endowment House where Ann Eliza receives her Endowments in what is supposed to be a secret ceremony. This is an important moment in her life because it is the first manifestation of her spiritual doubt. Such an incident is central to any retelling of her life, which explains why the episode has become part of the public record. Even before Ann Eliza published her first memoir, she spoke about her Endowment Ceremony in her public lectures. She writes of the rituals, and her response to them, in Wife No. 19 and again in Life in Mormon Bondage. In The Twenty-seventh Wife (1961), Irving Wallace writes about the ceremony as well. In addition to this, two other books published before Ann Eliza’s public statements reveal the inner workings of the Endowment Ceremony from the point of view of a doubting young woman: Tell It All (1874) and, to a lesser extent, Expose of Polygamy in Utah (1872), both by Mrs. T.B.H. Stenhouse. On September 28, 1879, a few years after Ann Eliza’s revelations, the Salt Lake Daily Tribune published a lengthy article about the Endowment Ceremony. These sources present a similar version of what might transpire in an Endowment Ceremony in the 1870s. And so with these in my mind, I wrote the scene in which Ann Eliza receives her Endowments and begins to wonder about her own understanding of her faith.

RHRC: Some say Ann Eliza Young was not Brigham Young’s 19th wife but actually the 27th, or possibly even the 52nd or 56th. Why the confusion?

DE: The confusion comes from the shifting definition of “wife.” Ann Eliza thought of herself as the 19th wife, and this was where she fell by Brigham’s count as well. In her day, she was widely known as the 19th wife. That’s why I call her this. But the tally of wives has always been fluid and I believe will never be settled. Some lists do not count as wives Brigham’s spouses who died before him, or those who left him (Ann Eliza was not the first). Some historians don’t count, or count separately, women Brigham married but who bore him no children. In some cases, the marriage (or sealing) ceremonies were highly secretive and there is little documentation: some women claimed to have been sealed to Brigham but he denied this, or some of his family members later denied this. I believe he had more than fifty wives, although certainly some of these were elder widows whom he married not for conjugal reasons but in order to provide them with a home, a secure place in society, and spiritual comfort.

When I started writing the novel I was determined to answer the question, How many wives did Brigham really have? But after a lot of searching, and an Excel spreadsheet that got more and more confused, I eventually concluded no one can answer that question with case-closed certainty. At first this frustrated me, but then I realized I could use this mystery as part of the novel’s plot. As one character in the novel says, “Indeed, there are some mysteries that must exist without answer. In the end we must accept them for what they are: complex and many-sided, ornamented with clues and theories, yet ultimately unknowable–like life itself.”

RHRC:What really happened to Ann Eliza? Did she really disappear?

DE: As far as I know, it remains a mystery. A reliable record ends after she published her second memoir in 1908. It’s hard to believe that someone once so famous and influential could disappear. But one hundred years later, Ann Eliza’s ultimate fate remains unknown.

Of course it’s still possible that someone will emerge with a letter, a newspaper clipping, a death certificate, or a photo of a gravestone–some clue to her fate. I would welcome this as much as anyone. A few months before the book was published, while I was editing the galley pages, I got an email from a woman in Alaska who said, cryptically, I am a descendant of Ann Eliza and I know what happened to her.

Immediately I called her to ask what she knew. As it turned out she knew very little about Ann Eliza, and nothing accurate about her fate, but she was in fact one of Ann Eliza’s descendants. As I told the woman more about her ancestor, she took an understandable pride in her heritage.

RHRC: You’ve touched on this, but can you tell us why you decided to write this as a novel instead of as nonfiction?

DE: The short answer is I’m a novelist, and that’s the form I think in. The long answer has to do with the reliability of facts, memory, and point of view. From the moment she left the Mormon Church, Ann Eliza faced challenges to her credibility. Hurt by her attacks, some of Brigham’s supporters disputed her version of events, claiming she was lying or at least exaggerating. But at the same time, other plural wives who had apostatized told similar stories of abuse and neglect. So whom can a writer–and a reader–trust? Fiction, especially a novel with many disparate voices, can accommodate these conflicting points of view. This is one of the reasons the novel is almost entirely in the first person. I wanted to make it clear that each person is voicing his or her point of view, with all the wonders and limits that entails. In The 19th Wife, Ann Eliza’s son remarks in a letter to a historian many years after his mother’s apostasy, “I must say a few words about memory. It is full of holes. If you were to lay it out upon a table, it would resemble a scrap of lace. I am a lover of history . . . [but] history has one flaw. It is a subjective art, no less so than poetry or music. . . . The historian writes a truth. The memoirist writes a truth. The novelist writes a truth. And so on. My mother, we both know, wrote a truth in The 19th Wife– a truth that corresponded to her memory and desires. It is not the truth, certainly not. But a truth, yes . . . Her book is a fact. It remains so, even if it is snowflaked with holes.”

RHRC: This novel merges several voices and formats: autobiography, letters, a cartoon, a poem, and even a Wikipedia entry. Why did you decide to tell the story in this way?

DE: As I mentioned earlier, I believe history is subjective. Even the most meticulous historians work subjectively. The historian’s point of view, his or her selection of subject and sources, the emphasis, the tone–all of these lead to subjective history, inevitably so. I do not say this as a criticism, merely as an observation. I love to read history; at its best, it is an art. And art is–has to be!– subjective. I decided to include a number of fictional documents or sources (many of them of course inspired by actual documents and sources) because I wanted to give the reader the sense of what it’s like to delve into this history and to sort through the record and the different points of view. The novel’s historical sections focus on Ann Eliza’s story, but I wanted to enrich that in a way that re-creates, for the reader, the experience of digging deeper and deeper into the archives. The 19th Wife has a number of mysteries within it–the mystery of what happened to Ann Eliza is one, and the genre-style mystery of Jordan’s story is another. The novel intentionally plays with the metaphor of mystery in a number of ways. I hope these different documents and sources bring another kind of mystery to the book and ask, in a different way, how and why we solve mysteries. Already a number of readers have told me that they’ve read the book with their browser open to Google. That’s exactly what I’d love to happen– readers figuring out a lot for themselves, in their own way. I hope the novel’s structure makes it clear that I do not believe this to be the final word on Ann Eliza, Brigham, or polygamy in the United States. I always love novels that open up a subject to me–like raising a window to a beautiful, mysterious world outside.

RHRC: You have Ann Eliza Young state in the book that “our response to the moral and spiritual enslavement of Utah’s women and children will define us in the years to come.” What do you think she would make of the current state of polygamy in the United States?

DE: I believe she would be surprised to see it still practiced in the United States. She took pride in her role in bringing an end to plural marriage in the LDS Church. Of course, she did not do this alone, and more than fifteen years passed from her apostasy until the Latter-day Saints officially renounced polygamy. But one of the wonderful ironies of her story is that in one sense she helped save the LDS Church and steer it toward its future. If the Latterday Saints had not abandoned plural marriage, they would have remained a fringe religion and would never have moved into mainstream American culture. Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints thrives. It is one of the fastest growing religions in the country and is the most successful American-born religion. I believe none of this would be true had the Church held on to the doctrine of plural marriage. Even today, some people dismiss Ann Eliza as a gadfly or write her off as an angry ex-wife. In my opinion, she played an indirect but important role in the Church’s history, although certainly no one could have predicted it in the heated days of her divorce from Brigham Young.

RHRC: The majority of women in your novel are unhappy in their plural marriages and jealous of the other wives. Did you come across any accounts of women who were happy in a plural marriage?

DE: The historical record contains numerous accounts–diaries and letters and other documents–of nineteenth-century women writing of the many comforts they found in plural marriage. Primarily, these women celebrated plural marriage because they believed it ensured their salvation. Yet other women found more practical comforts: companionship, the sharing of household chores and child care, as well as relief from what they might have described as conjugal duty. I allude to this in certain parts of the novel. For example, the poem “In Our House” is a sincere expression of the joy one plural wife found in her marriage. Yet we cannot read these documents and testaments without remembering that if a plural wife had spoken out against polygamy she would have faced ostracism and excommunication and, according to her faith, would have been denied salvation.

My experience researching twenty-first-century polygamy was similar. The women I interviewed loathed their experiences in plural marriage, speaking out forcefully against it. When I asked them about women who said they cherished being a plural wife, inevitably they said these women were either lying out of fear or were deluded. Each time I visited Hildale/Colorado City, I asked several women for an interview. No one would say more than a few words. Were they silent because they feared the repercussions of speaking the truth, or because they simply had no interest in speaking to me? Of course, in recent months we have seen several plural wives speak about their experiences on television. But who among us can say what is really in their hearts?

RHRC: The story of the FLDS group in the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas has captured the attention of the media recently. Why are we still fascinated by polygamy?

DE: I believe it’s one part titillation (there’s a sexual component to it, of course), and one part profound ambiguity. This is America: If a man and nineteen women want to live together, who has the right to say they cannot? Yet that scenario gets more complicated when children are involved, which inevitably they are. In the sad instances of physical and/or sexual abuse, the answer is a lot more straightforward: society has a responsibility to protect abused children. But physical and sexual abuse are not always present or apparent. And that’s where the questions become a lot murkier: Should children be protected from households of emotional abuse and neglect? But how do you determine emotional abuse and neglect? Don’t parents have the right to raise their children according to their own beliefs? Or does that right end when those beliefs fall far outside cultural norms? And who can, or should, determine that? And doesn’t every American have the right to religious freedom? Yes, but not at the expense of another person’s freedom or well-being. But how do you determine, in these circumstances, if someone is acting and thinking freely? Who can really say if the thousands of plural wives in Utah, Arizona, Idaho, and Texas need society’s assistance or have the right to be left alone? These are some of the difficult questions that the United States has grappled with since the nineteenth century, and will continue to do so for many years.

RHRC: Two of your novels–The Danish Girl and now The 19th Wife–have been inspired by the lives of real people. What is it about retelling true stories that appeals to you?

DE: I love to read (and edit) biographies. For me, one of biography’s many appeals is seeing how a life can be retold again and again artfully and freshly. Recently I edited a biography of Abraham Lincoln–A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White, Jr. Some people might ask, What can possibly be left to say about Lincoln? In fact, a lot. Ron has unearthed new facts about the evolution of Lincoln’s political thinking and his moral development, which shed light on his presidency. Just as important, Ron writes in a clear, simple, poignant voice– one that suits Lincoln perfectly, and at times even echoes Lincoln’s own prose. Finally, Ron has reinterpreted Lincoln for our day. All of this makes the book new, exciting, and relevant. And this is how I came to look at Ann Eliza Young and American polygamy. True, she wrote her own memoirs, and true, Irving Wallace wrote a biography of her in 1961. If anyone wants to know more about her, I recommend these books. Yet as we all have seen recently, the story does not end there. I hope that The 19th Wife can illuminate a set of questions, perhaps inform a little, and maybe even entertain. But I’ll be the first to tell you I have not written the last word. As Jordan says on the novel’s last page: “Endings are beginnings.”

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  "good discussion"by jcjwalbye (see profile) 08/31/20

Rated 8.0 out of 10. A bit confusing the way it was written. Blended fictional stories with real historical events and people.

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