The 19th Wife, A Novel

David Ebershoff
Random House, 2009

Murder, incest, sex, runaways, love, historical personalities. All are meant to keep pages turning. The 19th Wife is a braided drama reflecting the woman’s braid on the book’s cover. History is the first braid with the appearance of documentation to support the second braid, the fictionalized biography of Ann Eliza Young. Ann Eliza is historically the 19th wife of Brigham Young who divorced Brigham and took to the lecture circuit at the time of Mark Twain and Victoria Woodhull. The third braid is the contemporary story of a young man trying to prove his mother innocent of killing his polygamous father. That story takes place in the not even thinly veiled southern Utah town, called Mesadale in the book. All of it is salacious enough to verify the worst in polygamy and imaginative enough to satisfy the meaning of a well told story.

But Ann Eliza’s story baffles me.

I agree with Ebershoff that history is subjective and he does have a writer’s right to portray emotions in the historical figure of Ann Eliza Young and those around her. I respect that history needs to be brought to life in good story to make it meaningful to another generation. It was a good story and the portrayal of daily life in early Salt Lake City will entertain the casual reader of western U.S. history.

Okay, I’ve given Ebershoff his due. It’s a well-written entertaining story, but there’s a problem that I’ve found troubling with historical fiction. Ever since I read Girl With the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier about the painter Vermeer’s life, over ten years ago, I’ve wondered how much right novelists have to latch onto an historical figure and turn them into puppets for their own end. Engaging fiction gets embedded into the historical belief about that person. How much free reign should a novelist have?

I understand Ebershoff’s personality portrayals of Ann Eliza and Brigham are fictional. I know the complete story of the young’s man’s fight for his mother is fiction. But where I draw the line with Ebershoff is on the second page of his Author’s Note and Acknowledgement where he writes he is the author of “…the newspaper articles, the letters, the Introduction by Harriet Beecher Stowe…” What! He uses real people and his cover of fiction to occasionally break into the story and expound like an historian with fake documents? I feel totally fooled by snarky entertaining clips from the San Francisco Examiner, et al, that the truthful items that could have sparked his story like stars from a magnetic center were false. And he took the name of Harriet Beecher Stowe in vain? Putting her into a story like a balancing reference? Why not a fictional Gretchen Aberdeen? Why should I believe any of his observations of Mormon life? Where is the line between fiction and subtly placed revisionist history?

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2 Responses to The 19th Wife, A Novel

  1. ShimonZ says:

    I agree with your conclusion here. Unfortunately, modern day writers and journalists, inspired by numerous writers in the late 20th century, have become too subjective for my taste. I believe that fictional history should try and recreate the context without betraying the essence of the story. One can guess at those issues that are not known, but it is a mistake to use the history as nothing more than historical background for a fantasy.

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