Posted in Book review

Book review: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Three of five stars

Okay, book first:  Well written and readable.  Although initially I enjoyed the 19th century storyline, I got bored with Ann Eliza’s story about 2/3rds of the way through.  She struck me as whiny, strident, and self-serving, which is only to be expected in an autobiography detailing her struggles as a plural wife and attacking one of the (then) fundamental doctrines of the Latter Day Saints.  As the book wore on, I became more interested in Jordan’s contemporary fight to save his mother from a murder charge than in Ann’s 19th century fight against “celestial” marriage and the Mormon church.

And now, a brief meditation on the fundamental issue of this novel, plural marriage.

As an advocate of personal liberty, I don’t think plural marriage is necessarily evil in and of itself.  However, as it was practiced by the Mormon Church in the 19th Century (and is practiced still by its bastard offshoots today), in which the man has multiple wives and holds all the power, it is blatantly discriminatory, demeaning, and harmful.  That’s not marriage, that’s concubinage.  That’s slavery.

To me, plural marriage must mean all parties involved have multiple spouses.

In other words, a husband doesn’t just marry another woman, or man, for that matter.  His current partner must marry her or him also.  And conversely, if a wife wants to marry another man (or woman), her current partner must also marry him or her.  All parties involved are married to each other.  Any children that result from the marriage are the children of all.  In theory, such a family structure makes a certain amount of sense.  Several working adults contributing monetarily to the household while one or two nurturing types stay home and care for the children and the house?  Sounds prosperous, comfortable, almost idyllic.  In Caprica, a television series hardly anyone saw, just such a marriage was depicted.  And, other than one of the spouses being a spy and another one a murderer, it seemed to work just fine.

Look, if multiple consenting adults want to marry each other and raise a family, I see no reason why they shouldn’t.  Human nature being what it is, though, I don’t hold out much hope for such an arrangement actually working in the long run.  Jealousies and rivalries will develop, factions will evolve, power struggles will ensue….sheesh, it’s hard enough being married to one person.  I can’t imagine dealing with multiple spouses.  (Go ahead, watch Caprica and see what happens in the above-mentioned plural marriage.)  And when such a marital arrangement falls apart?  I can’t even begin to imagine the unraveling of that legal tangle in a divorce court.

On a personal note, if my husband ever came to me with the notion that he wanted to add another wife to our household, he’d find himself out the door in a hurry.  I just asked him what his response would be in the opposite scenario.  His response can’t be printed.

Given that most of the United States can’t even bring itself to allow consenting adults of the same sex to marry, I don’t see much chance of plural marriage as described above becoming permissible at any point in the future, so speculation on its nature and effect on family and society is simply that:  speculation.  We can only go by history, and thus far history shows us only one form of plural marriage.  As portrayed in The 19th Wife, it’s not a pretty picture.