Monday, July 26, 2010

two recent novels featuring Mormon Fundamentalism/polygamy: David Ebershoff's THE 19TH WIFE and Brady Udall's THE LONELY POLYGAMIST

For someone who loves Big Love (the HBO series) and books as much as I do, this has been a banner year of polygamous titillation (because, let's face it--as Brady Udall said in his Bookslut interview, the reason we're fascinated by polygamy is, "in one word," sex). Well, for me, it's been a banner week, since I've plowed through both of these hefty novels in a matter of days. As desperate as I was to read The 19th Wife, which came out in 2009, I coyly waited until I could get it in paperback; The Lonely Polygamist was sent to me by the good people at Norton (thanks, Norton!).

The ground covered is, ostensibly, similar--Mormon Fundamentalism, or, as they're often more simply known, polygamy, since the core tenant that has separated the Latter-Day Saints from the Fundamentalists is adherence to the 19th century practice of "plural marriage," which amounts to one husband and multiple wives in practice. And although much in both books will be very familiar to anyone as obsessed with Big Love as, erm, me, the tone and approach are very different, and make the two novels interesting to read in counterpoint.

David Ebershoff's The 19th Wife is woven of side-by-side portraits of Fundamentalist polygamy in the 1840s, at its advent, and in the present day. The modern narrator, Jordan, is one of the "lost boys"--like many other polygamist boys, he was driven off the compound he grew up on for a minor infraction and was left to fend for himself in the secular world. (This happens to lots of boys--otherwise, there wouldn't be enough women on the compound for all the remaining men to have multiple wives.) Now, at twenty, Jordan has struggled through the darkest period of his life: homelessness, surviving by sex trade, learning to live in a world that doesn't follow the Principle. He's come through the worst, found a job, made some friends, discovered his sexuality, and is just about living normally--until he learns his father has been shot, and Jordan's mother, his 19th wife, is being charged with murder.

Underlying Jordan's narrative is the story of Ann Eliza Young, the supposed 19th wife of Brigham Young, the second Mormon prophet, who led the pioneers to Utah. Ann Eliza is famous for having left the Church and divorcing Brigham, and becoming an outspoken proponent of cracking down on polygamy.

Although the book is long, it is a very quick page-turning kind of read. Although (in my humble opinion) the book could have lost a few chapters, overall it is entertaining and informative. The story of Ann Eliza Ebershoff tells is largely in agreement with historical fact, and his lengthy Author's Note at the end is worth a read, since he breaks down where he embellished--his note makes his novel seem, to me, at least, both respectful and even-handed. The historical narrative is an interesting perspective on the origins of the LDS Church--of course, taking into account that it's really focusing on one specific facet (and that is men having sex with multiple women). It sounds salacious, but it is what the book is (quite seriously) about: the implications of a world where a woman can be at any moment replaced, and where men can guarantee their families' place in eternity by honoring lust for new women.

Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist takes the flip side of the story: sex may be the reason we're fascinated with polygamy, but in practice the polygamist lifestyle isn't necessarily sexy or fun at all. Golden Richards, the antihero, is a hapless man in his early 40s, husband to four women and father to 28 (living) children. Golden just can't keep it together--he can't quite make ends meet, and has resorted to building a whorehouse for cash; his wives each see him on average once every two weeks; he only remembers all his children's names by chanting them like a prayer. Meanwhile, he has a secret crush on his boss's wife--he's never chosen a woman for himself before, and the feeling of attraction is new--but he'll never have any kind of affair with her, since he got gum stuck in his pubic hair and hasn't been able to get it out for weeks. Basically, Golden's life is a big mess. A totally, completely sexless mess.

The Lonely Polygamist strings together Golden's narrative along those of his fourth wife, Trish, the youngest and least sure about her polygamist lifestyle, and one of his sons, Rusty, known as "the terrorist," who everyone in the family treats like a pariah. From their three perspectives emerges the story of a family where everyone's trying really hard and means really well, but where life is just a lot of rough patches stitched together.

Udall's polygamists are more benign than the fictional Mesadale compound in The 19th Wife, or, say, the Juniper Creek compound in Big Love. The Prophet of Udall's Church is a kind and sympathetic old man, and there are no references to the sinister elements (child rape, forced marriage, government fraud, etc) that come out in other polygamy stories. The Richards family will remind you more of Bill Henrickson, the "assimilated" polygamist family at the center of Big Love. This is perhaps not a coincidence; in 1998, Udall wrote this article (entitled "Big Love") about the time he spent observing an assimilated polygamist family for Esquire. For my fellow Big Love adherents, many bells will ring.

While I honestly felt The Lonely Polygamist was (way) too long for the story it had to tell, Udall's writing is elegant and his characters very absorbing. The cumulative effect of the book, though, is to make the reader wonder why anyone, male or female, would be willing to live a polygamous lifestyle. Interestingly, a number of Udall's adult polygamists characters have come to polygamy (as opposed to being born into it)--I'm not sure that, coming to the end of the book, having seen all the daily horrors and indignities and lonelinesses practitioners face, I understand why they come to the arrangement, or why they stay. Despite this bafflement, I was now about to close the book and not find out what happened to all the characters. Udall writes very--very--personally. It's hard not to get sucked in.

Now that these two novels have come out in quick succession, I wonder if the market has been saturated, or if more polygamy stories will come out. As Udall says in the Bookslut interview, the polygamy fascination comes down to the sex, so it seems unlikely we (you know, "we") will get tired for a while. If anybody knows of any others, I'm always open to recommendations :)


Katy Upperman said...

I've read The 19th Wife, but not The Lonely Polygamist (yet). Like you, I thought it could have lost a few chapters (specifically some of the rather tedious historical chapters), but overall I was very pleased with the book. If you haven't already, you should check out "Under the Banner of Heaven" by Jon Krakauer. Fascinating.

Judy Croome said...

Very interesting review. Polygamy is a topic currently hotly debated here (South Africa) because our President Jacob Zuma is a polygamist (he currently has three wives - or is it four? - with a couple of fiancees waiting in the wings). I think I need to get these books to have others side to the issue.

Laura said...

I was raised mainstream LDS, and never really paid much attention to polygamy. Well, other than what I knew from the history of our church and from the beliefs of the afterlife (Mormon teachings are still very much polygamous, they've just opted to stop practicing it this life for political reasons).

I'd always thought Brigham Young and his contemporaries had started the whole doctrine of polygamy thing -- to "protect women on the trail." When I was about 25, I read 'Saints,' by Orson Scott Card. It frankly stunned me -- the protagonist is a prophetess and one of Joseph Smith's multiple wives.

It inspired me to do more research in the origins of the church, and I discovered that while many of the characters are fiction, the events portrayed are very true to the historical account.

I also discovered a lot of other unsavory things about the church, and now I'm inactive, lol.

Debra L. Schubert said...

I haven't read any fiction on the subject, but I read, "Escape" by Carolyn Jessop. She not only escaped a polygamous life, but managed to free all eight of her children as well. This is an incredible book that I highly recommend.

moonrat said...

Katy--yeah, I read UNDER THE BANNER back in like 2002, or whenever it first came out--I admit that it sparked my interest both in FLDS and the LDS... although I know since reading it Krakauer took some liberties. Still a great read, if you're reading with a grain of salt.

Judy--funny you mention Zuma! When I was Wiki-ing modern polygamy (because now I read all novels with the supplementary aid of Wikipedia...) his story came up. I'm curious, if you want to talk more about it, what some of the emerging arguments in SA are about polygamy in modern culture, and whether there's a place for it.

Laura--it sounds to me like you have even more to say than you have said here. EG, what do you mean by LDS teachings are polygamous, even if the practice has stopped? If you feel like talking more, I'd LOVE to hear more. I'm totally, totally fascinated by the LDS church, but feel a little bit like it's not accessible to me and that certain things will always be a little mysterious.

Debra--thanks for the rec!

Dr. Kerry said...

A good friend of mine wrote "The Chosen One," a YA novel about polygamy. And another friend wrote a memoir: "Predators, Prey and Other Kinfolk: Growing Up In Polygamy." I highly recommend both of those if you liked these books.

And I really like Big Love, too, BTW. I live in Utah (right next to Sandy, UT!) and mostly it's a little over-the-top, but every now and then it's creepy how it hits home. Once I was watching it with my beauty queen sister, Miss Provo, when a guy came on and said, "Let's welcome the senator of West Jordan." My sister said, "Hahahaha you live in West Jordan, that's *your* senator! Hahahaha!"

And right then the man on the TV said, "And here's Miss Provo to sing the national anthem."

So it was my turn to say, "Hahahahahhah. That's YOU!"

She wouldn't sing, though. Spoilsport.

moonrat said...

thanks for the rec, Dr Kerry! that's actually not the first time someone has told me about that book--guess the universe is making clear indications :)

Julia Ergane said...

Enter my personal Way-Back machine: it is 1961 and I am 10/11 years old.Even back then, I loved opera. NBC broadcast a special opera that year, "Deseret."
"The opera takes place in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1862. Eighteen-year-old Ann Louisa Brice reluctantly agrees to become the 25th wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young. She soon falls in love with Captain James Dee, a dashing non-Mormon Union Army officer visiting Utah to obtain Mormon support for the Civil War, and must choose between her heart and her promise." Written by Eric Sorensen

Jane Steen said...

I put The 19th Wife on my TBR list, but The Lonely Polygamist doesn't appeal. I like the historical angle and I know absolutely nothing about LDS so it'll be a learning experience.

Stoney said...

Someone mentioned "Predators, Prey and Other Kinfolk: Growing Up In Polygamy" and I gotta say, the original printing of that, "In My Father's House" is far better, if you can find it. She rewrote the book to take out some damning evidence of her life as a swinger for a period of time.

The be all end all book on polygamy is by Richard VanWagoner, "Mormon Polygamy." And seeing as my family were some of the first called publicly to practice, I know a teensy bit about it. These are all nonfiction, though. I have issues with fictional accounts, seeing as places like YFZ still exist. (Big Love is pretty much ripped from the headlines, though.)

Judy Croome said...
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Judy Croome said...

Moonrat, there's quite a divergence of opinion about polygamy here.

Many people still see it as a viable and acceptable cultural tradition; others see it as having no place in a young and vibrant democracy, which is seen as one of the (if not *the*) leading nation on the African continent. The for/against spilt is not strictly colour/culturally based either. Many young black professionals, while they may still adhere to traditions such as the paying of lobola (dowry), feel that legalised polygamy is simply not acceptable in a country striving towards being amongst the 21st century's best.

One of the main arguments against polygamy is poverty (many of the people who still embrace polygamy are amongest the poorest and can hardly afford to feed one wife and family, let alone multiple wives); Zuma, of course, has us taxpayers to pay for all his wives, fiancees and mistresses. Other arguments say that poverty is the cause of polygamy, or at least of multiple partners. The AIDS epidemic is another reason why polygamy is frowned on by many.

It's a debate that rages hotly on - the comedians and the satirists have terrific fodder, especially when the presidential wives behave like Big Love stars (alleged affairs with bodyguards; being sued for non-payment by domestic workers; reports of jealousies and infighting; other scandals and intrigues galore!! :)

My personal stance is divided. On the one hand, what does it matter, as long as he runs the country well and improves the lot of the masses? (The jury is still out on this one) At least Zuma is more honest than many other married politicians (and ordinary men) who bonk away in secret, although he should at least be responsible - Zuma himself admitted to unprotected sex with an HIV positive woman (who was neither wife nor fiancee)! (if I had more space I'd tell you about the shower!)

On the other hand, lack of education and so much grinding poverty because of over-population are both such threats to the huge potential we carry as a nation, having a President who can't keep his zip up, and is father to who knows how many children both in and out of marriage, is not the kind of example one wants from a leader!

It's an interesting topic, whichever way you look at it! At the end of the day, I suppose it boils down to freedom of choice and accepting responsibility for those choices for every individual.

Judy Croome said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Judy Croome said...

Oops. Sorry. &*^%$# blogger kept on telling me my comment wasn't posted so I kept on clicking on publish! Ended up having to delete the same comment! :(


moonrat said...

Thanks, Judy! This is very interesting. You've given me several ideas of Wiki articles for further reading...

Helena Soister said...

I've been planning to read both books, but I have to say your review of Lonely makes it sound especially intriguing. On the other hand I've had it up to the wazoo on Mormon polygamy because I've so thoroughly researched the subject for my own novel (a humorous look at Americans in the 1860’s and their obsession with sex, including polygamy, rampant prostitution, chaste Shakers, and free love communes like Oneida.)

Your quote from Lonely author Brady Udall about our fascination with sex is spot-on, along with your observation that his characters’ world is more sad than salacious. It’s no coincidence that polygamy appeared during a very puritanical period in our history. Americans, per usual, were trying to figure out sex and for guidance turned – with often disastrous results - to the Bible. Bear in mind too that this was a period when only men were supposed to crave more than one sexual partner, and not only were “good” women expected to dislike the sex act, they were encouraged to have barbaric clitorectomies (Victorian female genital mutilation) to help keep them “pure.” Yet even in those repressed times, Brigham Young had to repeatedly lecture Mormon women about how they weren’t “knuckling under” enough to polygamy and how they cared too much for fancy clothes and adorning themselves.

An interesting footnote: Mormon missionaries avoided trying to convert Irish women because they were too head-strong and rebellious for the faith and because they wouldn’t agree to share a man with other women.

My own take on the subject: As bad as Puritanism is on men, it can have an even more harmful effect on the lives of women.

moonrat said...

Helena--they did WHAT?!?! really?!?! mutilation??

Katherine said...

re: genital mutilation... Well, I'm not Helena, but I've read about it, so let's see -- yeah, the last one for "therapeutic" reasons was performed on a five-year-old girl around 1950.

Women who were considered "nymphomaniacs" (the definition varied a lot, but being caught masturbating was often enough to get the label) would have their clitorises removed (usually against their will) to cure the "unusual" behaviour. Hysterectomies were performed for the same reason. Bottom line: women were not supposed to be sexual beings.

I don't have the book I read about this in anymore, but if you look up women & psychiatry in the 19th century, you'll find information. The book I read was a series of actual medical reports from the period. I have never read a horror novel that scared me so much as this non-fiction collection of doctor's reports.

And, coincidentally, my word verification is "bully".

moonrat said...


Helena Soister said...

Moonrat -- Katherine gave a good description. Basically, some doctors in the Victorian period (and later) advocated the removal of a woman's clitoris, a procedure that supposedly would help prevent "good" women from becoming sullied by having base sexual pleasures. What is perhaps even more appalling is that a few women volunteered to have this procedure so that they might remain "pure."

Here are a few other twisted "medical facts" that doctors of the period promoted as truth: only women and never men could pass on venereal disease; semen has a positive effect on women's health; and women are at their least fertile time during the middle of their "month" and most likely to conceive just before or after they menstruate.

Amber M said...

Hi Moonrat - a note about historicity, specifically about Ann Eliza, who is the original source of pretty much all anti-Mormon lit. There is a talk by Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley that addresses Ann and the generations of work based on her life accounts:

It's a podcast, and as a writer, I actually found it interesting for the way it lays out the principles of propaganda.

I'm a practicing LDS woman and you can email me any questions, if you like. I don't know much about FLDS, as they are separate and distinct from LDS.

When Laura says that LDS men started the doctrine of polygamy, she means within the LDS faith, of course, since it is an ancient practice detailed in the Old Testament of the Bible... which means that Jews and Christians alike accept it as a godly practice under certain circumstances. It just doesn't get talked about much.

BTW I've enjoyed your blog for many moons, thanks for all your sharing.

moonrat said...

thanks, Amber, and thanks for chipping in! i'm really enjoying the variety of perspectives on this thread.

Patti's Pages said...

I read The 19th Wife. How the LDS justified the fact that something as fundamental to their faith as polygamy went from being sanctioned to being prohibited is a mystery to me, but it's even more puzzling why the women thought that allowing their husbands as many sex partners as they wanted was a ticket to heaven. I'd like to read the Krakauer book, but I'm now convinced that The Lonely Polygamist is not for me.