Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of the faith is to see what you believe – Saint Augustine
How much do I know about the Mormons and the Jesus Christ Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS)? Not much.
I first heard of the Mormons while talking to a person who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the year 1996. I have heard about Brigham Young University, which seems to be prestigious and appeared in almost every recruitment list of American global companies as preferred place to recruit. I spoke to intern who graduated from there. At mid 20’s, the Intern had completed his MBA and married with 3 daughters. Nothing wrong, but unusual. The BBC program Around the world in 80 faiths introduced the religion of LDS and interviewed a household of a man with his 5 wives. I didn’t know the magnitude of polygamy of the LDS until I read this book.
Ann-Eliza Young is the 19th wife of Brigham Young, prophet of the early Mormons. She published her autobiography soon after she decided to renounce the Mormon faith and drawing the world’s attention to the American polygamy. The origin of LSD, when John Smith’s was visited by the angel Moroni to hear God’s instruction to go to Kirtland and discovered the golden plates which is believed to be God’s word. Smith was murdered in the Carthage jailhouse and was succeeded by Brigham Young. Fear of massacre from non-Mormons, Brigham Young led his Saints to Zion and redemption. Ann-Eliza’s life story grew darker as a Spanish Inquisition-like, government based on Theoracy was established in the present day Great Salt Lake city. Tales of Danites (The prophet’s secret spies and police) create fear amongst the worshippers, murder of dissidents and escapees, the coercive confession of sins, as leathery old men coveted adolescent girls, married men coveted other men’s wife, single man mandated by the church to take up another wife etc. Not short of shocking and blasphemous revelations, one account relate how Brigham Young had manipulated Gilbert Webb into laying bad poles and his business at the brink of devastation while sinking deeper in debt, persuaded Gilbert to influence Ann-Eliza to be his wife, so that Gilbert’s debt will be written-off, his position in the church restored, his name exalted.
To expand the kingdom, the practice of polygamy and imports of European new converts were introduced. The new converts had to make the thousand miles voyage to Salt Lake in near death condition due to lack of food and harsh weather. The Mormons in Salt Lake housed and clothed these immigrants and resulted in Ann-Eliza’s father Chauncey Webb, with two wives (Elizabeth and Lydia), decided to wed another three young women to help them settle in Salt Lake City, sisters Eleanor and Margarat, and Mrs. Cox within 3 weeks. He met his last wife during his missionary trip in Liverpool where both father and son Gilbert, fell for the same women. As his first wife Elizabeth Churchill (Ann-Eliza’s mother) suffered in silence. In Chauncey Webb’s own words:
I have spent the years since shuttling between their beds. I do not believe I have ever in my life behaved more like a beast than during this period, for this is how a dog acts, not a man. Three wedding nights in three weeks – alas , all excessive pleasures must be repaid.
Ann-Eliza witnessed her family in conflict, as brother Aaron took up the role of home missionary and later became leader of the Firsts cult, and At 16, Ann-Eliza was married to a womaniser, divorce under Brigham Young’s “special exemption” (divorce was forbidden), obviously Brigham did this to create an open path for him to court Ann-Eliza. Ann- Eliza married then 60 year old Brigham to redeem Gilbert from his debt to Brigham. Ann-Eliza stayed at Lion House for awhile, a house deemed to be Brigham’s seraglio. It is said that Brigham Young had 50 over wives and fathered 57 children. Ann-Eliza and mother were later sent to a farm house to maintain the farm and supply food to the wives and children. When times are bad, Mr. Young forfeited Ann-Eliza’s allowance and queue for food coupon at the market and said that he no longer able to support her mother, Elizabeth Churchill Webb. Ann-Eliza took in boarders to earn some money and befriended Major Pond and a Methodist Reverand who later help her to escape from Salt Lake with young son Lorenzo (Eldest son, James, stayed with Elizabeth) and travel towards Washington to crusade against polygamy and to influence the change of law. Ann-Eliza lectured and spoke to sold out theatre of curious audience, earning support and making new enemies along the way. On September 1890, President Woodruff’s (church 4th president), approved a manifesto renouncing polygamy. Ann-Eliza Young was last heard in 1908 publishing a failed revised edition of her autobiography. No one including her son Lorenzo knew the end of the Ann-Eliza, he theorised a possibility of being murdered by her brother Aaron Webb who had opposed Woodruff’s manifesto and divide from the Mormons to form the Firsts*, who build their kingdom around present day Mesadale.
Running parallelly to the story of Ann-Eliza, in the modern day, Jordan Scott was ex-communicated (from the Firsts community) at the age of fourteen by her mother who drove him to the desert one day and left him. Jordan’s mother BeckyLyn (wife #19) had recently being incarcerated in jail, facing death row, for killing her husband with a shot gun, while he chatting with other women. Jordan embarked with pet dog Elektra, Johnny, a runaway Firsts, with the help of lawyer Mr. Heber and assistant Maureen, to uncover the clue of “who dunnit”. Making several unwelcome trips to Mesadale, to uncover more clues that could prove the innocence of his mother. Jordan found out the night on the murder of his father, he was to marry another wife, mandated by the prophet, to punish Hiram Alton for not taking another wife besides Queenie. You would probably guess who dunnit by now.
This novel is effectively two novels in one. A big proportion draws from research materials from Mormon Church Archives and early diaries of Mormons. All letters and research supports the injustices that happens to the women and children under the polygamy practice, however Ebershoff is quick to qualify Ann-Eliza’s abrasive account of plural marriages and the Mormon’s religion to be unreliable at the end of the chapter, as she narrates incidents that happened before she was born or too young to remember. Perhaps for fear of creating an uproar from the present day Mormons.
The book weave an intriguing tale of murder, intrigue, religious zealots, cult-like practices, history, biography, research….
Ann-Eliza on her father:
In the end, I suppose my greatest disappointment has been in realising my father, like Joseph and Brigham before him, trie to shroud his passions in the mantle of religion. He used God to defend his adultery. I have yet to hear him acknowledge his lies.
Lorenzo Dee’s letter to Professor Charles Green, a historian at Brigham Young University at 1939, working on a research on Ann-Eliza:
The true historian has two sources: the written record and the witness’s testimony. This is as it should be. Yet one is memory and the other is written, quite often, from memory. There is nothing to be done about this defect except acknowledge it for what it is. Yet this is your field’s Achilles’ heel. You say in your letter the historian writes the truth. Forgive me, I must disagree. The historian writes a truth. The memoirist writes a truth. The novelist writes a truth. And so on. My mother, we both know, wrote a truth in The 19th Wife – a truth that corresponded to her memory and desires. It is not the truth, certainly not. But a truth, yes.
I came from a country where polygamy is being practiced, like some muslim countries do. I had listened to first hand account of first wife making way for the second wife. The bitterness, the jealousy, sometimes the comedy of it all are played out many times in TV programmes and local movies. The mistake is attributed to men alone, to misinterpret the scriptures in the Quran (or the Bible). The Quran clearly advise men who marries more than one wife, to be fair and just to all wives; if you can’t, one is best. It is almost saying, to be fair and just to all your wives is mission impossible, so forget about marrying more than one wife.
This book is best read as a historical novel rather than crime fiction. As historical novel, it is brilliant; as a crime fiction, it is lacklustre.
* A sect which break off from the Mormons.
Verdict : 3 out of 5
What I like about it:
A crime story accompanied with juicy insider story of the Mormons. A page-turner and a thickster of 606 pages which is easy to read. A 360 review and letters from Ann Eliza’s father, Chauncey Webb, son Lorenzo Dee, empathetic Gilber Webb, prison diary of Brigham Young, research by Kelly Dee all provides an a holistic view of the issue. A complex, intrigue, multifacet family saga, better than “Dynasty” or “Dallas”!
What I do not like about it:
Can be a little longwinded. Ok ok we know that Brigham practices polygamy, the Mormons do, we questions our faith sometimes, we wonder why Ann-Eliza spoke against her church, we justify our hideous act in the name of religion etc. but do we have to mull over it again and again? It kind of wear you out after awhile, you wish there were more murder plots and conspiracy in the story than the book marketed it to be.