You may have seen, or at least heard of, ‘Big Love’, the TV series starring Bill Paxton as the paternal head of a four-wife family. The series somehow manages to showcase the humour and the love as well as the jealousy between multiple wives sharing one (very busy) hubby. And while I would occasionally watch an episode and quite enjoy the script and the storylines, I still couldn’t let go of the thought ‘this is wrong’.
It wasn’t until I watched the US reality TV series ‘Sister Wives’ that I began to rethink my judgmental approach. These women were REAL, and personable to the viewer, living by choice in a household where they had to decide which nights per week they would delegate each other to spend with the man they married. Certainly the relationship is a complex one – the first wife seemed to be going through a bit of a rough time with the news that the Mr had fallen in love with Meredith, the proposed fourth wife, and we see the good times and bad times this huge family (each of the wives have at least one child) go through by making this new connection. I was most struck with the kinship of the wives – ‘Sister Wives’ is such a perfect title – and I began to see that perhaps I was wrong for painting each polygamist family with a broad brush. I’m not saying it’s my thing, but who says women cannot be happy in such a relationship if that’s what they want? I feel like we’re prone to judge negatively because it doesn’t align with our culture. With this in mind, I sought out fiction centred around polygamy to further question and understand my views on the subject, and came across The 19th Wife.
The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff, begins with murder. A prominent figure in a polygamist cult is gunned down, and all signs point to his 19th wife, BeckyLyn, as having pulled the trigger. BeckyLyn is awaiting execution, but her son, Jordan (who has his own reasons for leaving her to await her fate), manages to show up to wish her goodbye and make amends. BeckyLyn manages to convince him that things are perhaps not what they seem – she isn’t the murderer the police are looking for. His mind reeling, Jordan must make his own journey back to his childhood (living in a polygamist household) and attempt to solve the mystery before his mother is put to death for a crime she may not have committed. And intertwined with Jordan’s journey is the story of another 19th wife who lived in the 19th century – real-life historical figure Ann Eliza Young, who set out to rid the world of polygamy.
I don’t believe Ebershoff achieved a balanced viewpoint of what it means to be a polygamist (he is far too invested in the characters who have been done wrong by polygamy for that), but the book is an incredibly interesting one. What Ebershoff does manage to do is expertly weave a set of parallel lives and circumstances with a prose that’s as easy and effective to breathe as oxygen. I was caught up from the start, utterly absorbed, and managed to finish this 525 page novel in record timing.
This book seems to do for polygamists what Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, did for hermaphrodites – it slices the top off a secret world, lets us peer in, and once we have, we’re changed. The 19th Wife has been the perfect appetiser for me – I’m now more eager than ever to read more about this private, often fugitive culture. I highly recommend it.
Year of Publication: 2009.
Number of Pages: 525.
Book Challenges: Chunkster Challenge 2011; Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2011.