The 19th Wife - David Ebershoff This fascinating book intermingles two stories: a murder mystery, the killing of Jordan Scott's father by his 19th wife, Jordan's mother; and the escape of Brigham Young's 19th wife from his "compound" in 1870. Clippings and documents telling of the history of the Mormon Church are interspersed in the novel, blending a feeling of historical fact and fiction. The stories co-mingle through four narratives: Jordan Scott, An Eliza, Her father and son. Normally, I dislike that, but here it works nicely.

I found the book to be quite intriguing as it raises issues of faith, why and how we believe, (members of the community were taught that plural marriage was essential to get into heaven); theocracy, Brigham Young was the law, (Young ruled with an iron fist and as he owned the railroad out of Salt Lake City, leaving became physically quite difficult;) and legality (during the divorce trial Young claimed he had never been married more than once and that the women in the Lion’s House were mere concubines!) God changed his mind about polygamy in the late 19th century and revelations denouncing the practice coincided nicely with Utah’s desire for statehood, a clause banning polygamy in their new constitution being a requirement.

We've been watching The Big Love on DVD and I've always been intrigued by how "faith" and self-isolation combine to create an environment of "us against them" which is so essential to any new religious belief system. Since they have nothing concrete to hang their faith on (translated gold tablets, revelations, holy scripture, whatever do not constitute anything concrete) seeing the rest of the world as evil and removing oneself and one's community from it becomes essential. This is equally true of modern day mega-churches who try to be everything for its members as it was/is for new cults. (Definition of a cult: a religion without political power.)

There were times, as Brigham Young’s relationship to his followers was portrayed, that I was reminded of the TV series, the Tudors. Such blatant use of apostasy as a political weapon of power. You want someone out of the way, just call him a heretic. Not at all unlike most churches which clearly evolve into self-protecting entities more concerned with their power base than the tenets of their faith. This leads, of course, to rebellion and the breaking-off of small sects and you wind up with the current church-in-every-old-gas-station situation.

Ann Eliza’s book is available for free download from Ebershoff’s website along with copies from contemporary newspaper articles. They are worth reading.

N.B. Young was indicted for adultery in 1871. In 1882, Congress passed the Edwards Law which provided severe penalties for engaging in polygamy. Earlier Supreme Court decisions validating laws against polygamy were, naturally enough, hailed as a violation of the Constitution, the cattle call whenever SCOTUS does something some group doesn’t like.

“Anywhere the devout gather to worship, there will always be a parade.” Ann Eliza Young