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The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

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THE 19TH WIFE

By: David Ebershoff.

Publisher: Random House, 514 pages, $26.

Review: A big sprawly novel that is both a modern-day murder mystery and a docudrama about Brigham Young's 19th wife.

Event: 7 p.m. Thursday, the Bookcase, Wayzata.

Engrossing tale of murder and plural marriage

  • Article by: LAURIE HERTZEL
  • September 12, 2008 - 12:12 PM

What a great big sprawly book this is, a book to get lost in, a book that is -- despite its rather depressing subject matter -- a lot of fun to read. The voices! Oh, the voices!

And no, not the voices in my head. The voices in the book. Author David Ebershoff is a master of voice. He glides effortlessly from writing as a present-day gay man to writing as a prim, 19th-century Mormon wife. In between, he creates pitch-perfect Wikipedia entries and legal documents, as well as letters and journal entries from all kinds of minor characters.

His book, "The 19th Wife," tells two parallel stories, both centered on the difficult situation of plural marriages. One track is a modern-day murder mystery narrated by a young man named Jordan, who was expelled from a Mormon fringe group. His father is murdered -- shot while cyber flirting -- and Jordan's mother, who is Wife No. 19, is arrested.

Jordan is drawn into the investigation. Hoping to clear his mother's name, he heads back to the remote town that expelled him, knowing that it is not safe; this is a place that writes its own laws.

The other track is the story of Eliza Ann Young, who was Brigham Young's 19th wife. Like E.L. Doctorow, Ebershoff combines real people and historic events with fiction; Eliza Ann was a real person who really did reject plural marriage and demand a divorce from Young.

I have no idea where fact leaves off and fiction begins, but in Ebershoff's hands, her story becomes rich and full -- and, in its own way, just as ominous as Jordan's. Both make strong points about plural marriage, how it brings out the worst in everyone: turns women into victims, turns men into predators.

LAURIE HERTZEL

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