Ebershoff makes little effort, really, to connect these two stories -- the story of Ann Eliza Young and her defection from the prophet's harem and subsequent rise to fame as the nation's most outspoken anti-polygamist crusader, and that of Jordan and his little circle as he revisits his past and attempts to solve a murder. Instead, the stories lie side by side, past and present coloring each other. It's a technique that enables the author to explore the entire history of a religion and the divine revelation that nearly caused its downfall. Ann Eliza Young, in her time, was one of the most famous women in the land, and the embarrassment she caused the prophet and his religion, as Ebershoff notes, can't be underestimated. Polygamy and slavery were considered in Ann Eliza's day "the twin relics of barbarism." Yet after her brief flurry of fame, Ann Eliza, who lived to usher in a second and largely ignored edition of her book, came to a mysterious end. No one knows how or where she died.
There are wonderfully lyrical passages in "The 19th Wife," images of the red-rock landscape of southern Utah. Equally memorable are the little tidbits one discovers: of how, for instance, FLDS women are forbidden to cut their hair, which they're told they'll need in heaven (which explains those remarkable hairdos worn by the women in Texas), and are forced to dress in long homemade dresses that Ebershoff calls "Mormon burkhas." Occasionally, he strikes an inadvertently funny note, as when Jordan first tells Tom that he's come back to Utah because his mother, the 19th wife of a chat-room-addicted hypocritical polygamist bully, has been accused of killing her husband and may go to the chair for it, and Tom responds, "Shoot, that's a lot to deal with."
Shoot, indeed. It is a lot to deal with, and yet deal Ebershoff does. "The 19th Wife" is a big book, in every sense of the word. It sweeps across time and delves deeply into a world long hidden from sight. It offers historical and contemporary perspective on one of the world's fastest-growing religions and one of its oldest practices, and in the process it does that thing all good novels do: It entertains us.
Judith Freeman is the author of several books, including "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved" and "Red Water: A Novel."