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19th Wife (Ebershoff)

The 19th Wife
David Ebershoff, 2008
Random House
514 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812974157


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

Sweeping and lyrical, spellbinding and unforgettable, David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife combines epic historical fiction with a modern murder mystery to create a brilliant novel of literary suspense.

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 a family’s polygamous history is revealed, including how a young woman became a plural wife.

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 and faith. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—1969
Where—Pasadena, California, USA
Education—B.A., Brown University; University of Chicago;
   Keio University (Tokyo)
Awards—Rosenthal Foundation Award from American
   Academy of Arts & Letters; Lambda Literary Award
Currently—lives in New York City


David Ebershoff is the author of two novels, Pasadena and The Danish Girl , and a short-story collection, The Rose City. His fiction has won a number of awards, including the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Lambda Literary Award, and has been translated into ten languages to critical acclaim.

Ebershoff is editor-at-large at Random House, where he edits a wide range of writers including novelists David Mitchell, Charles Bock, Gary Shteyngart, Phil LaMarche, poet Billy Collins, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi, journalist Azadeh Moaveni, and historians Hugh Thomas and Ronald C. White, Jr. Ebershoff was Jane Jacobs's editor on her final two books and was Norman Mailer's editor for the last five years of his life. Working with Truman Capote's estate, he oversees the Capote publications for Random House, and was the editor of The Complete Stories of Truman Capote, Summer Crossing, and Portraits and Observations. He was formerly the publishing director of Random House's classics imprint, the Modern Library. He also writes for Conde Nast Traveler.

Ebershoff has taught creative writing at New York University and Princeton and is currently an adjunct assistant professor in the graduate writing program at Columbia University. For many years he was the publishing director of the Modern Library, and he is currently an editor-at-large for Random House. He lives in New York City. (From the publisher and Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
[Ebershoff's] great collage of a novel mixes the early history of the Mormon Church with the story of a modern-day murder in a breakaway Mormon cult. Readers of Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer's bestseller about the violent beginnings of Mormonism in the early 19th century and a double murder carried out by Mormon fundamentalists in 1984, will recognize this mingling of old and new. But Ebershoff has produced a different kind of book. For one thing, he's made up his modern-day adventure and fictionalized the historical record to shape his own ends. And more important, he's produced a novel that poses engaging challenges for the faithful in any denomination without discounting the essential value of faith. The result is a book packed with historical illumination, unforgettable characters and the deepest questions about the tenacity of belief.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


Despite the high hurdles Ebershoff has erected, the novel flows surprisingly well…In a less talented writer's hands, The 19th Wife could have turned into a Rube Goldberg contraption. But in the end the multiplicity of perspectives serves to broaden Ebershoff's depiction not only of polygamy, but also of the people whose lives it informs. And this gives his novel a rare sense of moral urgency.
Louisa Thomas - New York Times


This ambitious third novel tells two parallel stories of polygamy. The first recounts Brigham Young's expulsion of one of his wives, Ann Eliza, from the Mormon Church; the second is a modern-day murder mystery set in a polygamous compound in Utah. Unfolding through an impressive variety of narrative forms—Wikipedia entries, academic research papers, newspaper opinion pieces—the stories include fascinating historical details. We are told, for instance, of Brigham Young's ban on dramas that romanticized monogamous love at his community theatre; as one of Young's followers says, "I ain't sitting through no play where a man makes such a cussed fuss over one woman." Ebershoff demonstrates abundant virtuosity, as he convincingly inhabits the voices of both a nineteenth-century Mormon wife and a contemporary gay youth excommunicated from the church, while also managing to say something about the mysterious power of faith.
The New Yorker


This sweeping epic is a compelling and original work set in 1875, when one woman attempts to rid America of polygamy. Ebershoff intertwines his tale with that of a 20th-century murder mystery in Utah, allowing the two stories to twist and turn into a marvelous literary experience. With such a sprawling tale to relate, a few narrators (Kimberly Farr, Rebecca Lowman, Arthur Morey and Daniel Passer) divide up the roles and deliver a solid, professional reading, true to Ebershoff's prose.
Publishers Weekly


Ebershoff (Pasadena, 2002, etc.) takes a promising historical premise and runs with it-perhaps a couple of dozen pages too long. He juxtaposes the world of modern polygamous families down on the remote Utah-Arizona line with the life of a junior wife of 19th-century Mormon patriarch Brigham Young. Junior in terms of both age and pecking order, Annie Young didn't much like the gig; she renounced life as a plural wife and broke from the church to publish a book about the horrors of polygamy. Her story inspired much antipathy among Young's anti-Mormon neighbors; Ebershoff borrows elsewhere from history to recapitulate a San Francisco newspaper's condemnation of Brigham Young as "a confidence man in the grand tradition of the hoodwinkers of the West." Meanwhile, in the present, a young Mormon man begins to examine the life he is falling away from, returning to the fictitious town of Mesadale, with its "few hundred houses now, warehouses for a family of seventy-five." (That would be Colorado City, Ariz., in real life-a place that hnineteeas recently made national news for its polygamous customs.) Things are not as placid and well ordered as they seem in the red-rock plateau country. Young Jordan's mom, one of several wives, has apparently shot dear old dad as he was simultaneously gambling and recruiting new companionship online. As for Jordan—well, he's a mess, doing decidedly unsaintly things in order to keep body and soul together. Many histories intertwine in these pages, and many voices are heard from, ranging from the stately cadences of Victorian steel-nib prose to the most modern lingo. Apostasy and self-discovery ensue. Reminiscent of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose in scope and ambition, though the narrative sometimes drags.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
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?

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? Who is 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 a second book, 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? Did you predict it?

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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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