Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Response: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

I am going out on a limb by writing this up. I have never yet written a review for a book I haven't actually finished. I feel like I am stirring the pot a bit, since this book is getting rave reviews all over the Internet - but I feel like I need to voice my own alternate opinion.

First of all, let's get this point out in the open: I am a member The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yes, that makes me a Mormon. Thus stems my interest in the book, since the 19th Wife was one of the wives of Brigham Young, an early prophet of my church. I wanted to see what the fuss was about and find out if this book was as fantastic as so many people say it is.

The book takes place in two time periods - both now and the time of Brigham Young and other early Latter Day Saints (early, mid 19th century). The murder mystery storyline takes place in the modern day, where a polygamist "apostle" has been killed, apparently by one of his many wives. Jordan, the excommunicated son of the main suspect, heads to the town of the polygamist compound where he grew up, in order to try and help his mom and find out what really went down in the basement of his Dad's house. This part of the book, despite its irritatingly foul language, was very engaging. The mystery was well set up. I appreciate that Jordan made it quite clear that the polygamists in this compound are NOT members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. His storyline, the "Prophet" of the polygamist group and the situation in the compound grabbed you and made you want to keep reading.

I can't, though. Read it, I mean. And here is why: to me, the "historical fiction" part of this book feels false and offensive. Here is my church’s statement on polygamist activities during this time, please read it to get an alternative viewpoint. The men who practiced polygamy in this book are made out to be lustful and unfaithful, which is historically inaccurate and certainly not the norm. If there were those that became polygamists for sexual or any other deviant reasons, they were not following the commandment that had been given.

Brigham Young is made out to be a merciless and dishonest fanatic, obviously an opinion of the 19th Wife herself but certainly not necessarily the sole opinion of others at the time. His portrayal is decidedly prejudiced in the negative. The text is filled with "historical documents" that Ebershoff uses to provide background, as well as to back up the 19th Wife's claims regarding the Church and the behavior of its members. Using documents in historical fiction to further the plot is a literary devise I usually really enjoy. However when you intersperse real documents and completely fabricated documents, it leaves the reader at a loss to know what is historically accurate and what is completely fiction. Even I, as a reader, knowing the history of my church, found myself going to google to find out more about certain documents, only to find out that no such document exists. This is when I went to the back of the book, and found Ebershoff's notes actually explaining that he is the author of those documents and although "many" are "inspired" by an actual text, he invented many of them.

Although Ebershoff's notes clearly state that the book is fiction and much of it is invented, I am under the impression from reading others' reviews, that many people are taking the historical portions of this book to be wholly authentic and that the book is an accurate history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints during this period. Take this review, for example. Obviously, this reviewer is under the impression that Ebershoff's storyline is the only thing that is fictional. It’s not Ebershoff's story I am taking issue with per say, and I don't deny that he has done a lot of research to write it. What bothers me is the way his fiction is being taken by readers as historical fact because of how it is presented.

The main reason I had to put this book down is that, mid-book, Ebershoff began writing about things that are sacred to me and others of my religion, in a way that is both mocking and misrepresentative. While this may be based on how the 19th Wife actually felt, I am uncomfortable with both the context and the content. I'm choosing not to read something that discusses this subject written by someone who doesn't understand it or respect it.

I am neither a historian nor an apologist, this review is wholly my personal opinion. If you have questions regarding The Church's history, please feel free to search here at the church's website.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your views, Corinne. I enjoyed this book, but I did have to keep reminding myself that it is a work of fiction.

bethany said...

I am with bermudaonion, it was easy to remember that the modern-day story was fiction, but for some reason the other documents and other storyline was harder.

In the middle of reading it I actually thought about you, and several of the of he other LDS peeps that our my bloggie buddies. I know I would feel the same way if someone had written the book about what I believe in.

Thanks for not shying away from voicing your opinions, friend!

Heather said...

Thank you for writing this! I've been reading reviews on other book blogs, and I've felt increasingly uneasy about what people are saying. Thank you for your clarifying voice!

Cami said...

Yay Corinne! It's great to know someone who actually has an informed opinion at least TRIED to read this book. I am so frustrated with the way historical fiction blurs the lines between fact and fiction so dangerously. Thanks for letting us know that it's not all it seems to be.

Natasha @ Maw Books said...

I'm LDS and also reviewed this book but I guess I didn't find it as offensive as yourself, although I freely admit that I had my misgivings and my doubts. Perhaps meeting David Ebershoff and hearing him in talk in person colored my perception of the book. I really believe that he was trying to do the best job he could and wasn't trying to purposely attack the church. I really appreciate your review. I like knowing what other members of the LDS church think about it.

erin sheely said...

I know we talked about this a ton already but I am grateful for the discussions we had about this book...even though I didn't read it it sure gave me a lot to think about. I'm proud of you.

Serena said...

I think when one reads a historical fiction, one has to remember that the storyline is fiction! When it has a historical basis, the reader should only take the "facts" with a grain of salt, particularly if the book is sold as fiction and billed as fiction.

Anonymous said...

I have not read the book - but I will surely remember that it is work of fiction.
If not for you, I would have joined the scores of readers- who thought the historical description was authentic.

I am really glad - Iread this! And kudos to you for voicing these opinions that in a way are educating people about things they don't know.

Anna said...

I appreciate your opinion on this, Corinne. I'm reading the book right now. I'm not Mormon and I can't claim to know a lot about the religion, but I understand that the book is fiction. I think that's really important for people to remember while reading it. I remember being offended while reading The Da Vinci Code, but that's fiction. It's sad that some people thing these books are factual. If anything, if you read a book like this and you want to know more about the actual events, do some research of legitimate historical texts, etc.

Diary of an Eccentric

Trish said...

Thank you for posting these thoughts, Corinne. You have expressed yourself for eloquently and clearly and I think this is a voice that needs to be heard. I have interest in this book, particularly because of my past and history. My family is LDS (I don't practice anymore--please no rotten vegetables!). I recently found out that my great great grandfather took a second wife while he and his first wife, Jody, were helping to settle southern Utah (San Juan county). I don't know the history of that but am really intrigued, especially since I just found this out about 6 months ago. I don't find it anything to be ashamed of and I feel sorry that people say things and don't understand what they are saying. It aggrevates me to no end when people say that Mormons are still polygamists. They are not. Although I don't practice anymore and have some differences in beliefs, I still feel very defensive about some of these topics. I'm rambling. Anyway...just wanted to say kudos for posting this.

Kellie said...

Thanks for this piece, Corinne. You spoke your piece without offense, prejudice or rancor, but without backing down. Well done.

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