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bookbuffet features Poligamy

abstract:The 19th Wife: A Novel, by David Ebershoff (2008)

What in the world does polygamous community in the early Mormon Church (and the persistent remnants of the practice in modern renegade cults which refuse to banish the practice) have to do with having it all, today? This anwer is, a great deal and very little. At first glance, we are mystified by these communities. Recent and recurring media fascination with polygamist cults in the West reveals that the allegedly private exercise of religion often includes the underage 'marriage' of girls as young as 14 to men in their forties and fifties, and the teen pregnancies that inevitably follow. We cannot understand how the women in these communities can defend so staunchly a way of life that sentences their own teen daughters to such marriages. We see a concept of community gone awry—where admirable tenets of sisterhood and faith are twisted into a practice where women are often emotionally abused and where children hunger for scraps of a father's love and attention together with dozens of siblings, resulting in mass neglect. We can only assume that the women and girls in this community know no alternatives, and have been brainwashed into believing that their eternal salvation and, perhaps more significantly to a child, that their reunion in heaven with everyone whom they hold dear, depends upon their compliance.


April 07, 2009
— In The 19th Wife: A Novel, author David Ebershoff constructs a complex three-tier novel. In the earliest tier, we are introduced to the early pioneers of the Mormon faith beginning with the contemporary followers of the first prophet, Joseph Smith and his purported revelation from God of the rectitude of plural or "celestial" marriage. The practice of polygamy is sold to skeptical early followers of the faith as a divine practice necessary to grow the faith and one which guarantees the consenting first wives eternal salvation. The intermediate tier of Ebershoff's story lies in the subsequent generation of Mormons, in the person of Anna Eliza Webb Young, the titular 19th wife, who is a product of a plural marriage, a wife of Prophet Brigham Young, and later, a crusader to end plural marriage following her scandalous decision to divorce the Prophet. The third tier of the story is embodied by a modern day teen, Jordan, a young man banished from a renegade polygamist sect for the crime of attraction to a teenaged girl whom his community's leader desired as an additional young wife for himself. Jordan returns to his community to investigate and defend the arrest of his mother, herself a 19th wife, for the alleged murder of her husband and his father, the current-day 'prophet' of this breakaway sect.

The practice of polygamy was banned by the Mormon Church in the late 1800's and is illegal in the United States. Fringe religious communities skirt these laws by creating households with only one legal first wife. Plural marriages happen privately, when a 'first wife' accepts into the household 'sister wives' who are not recognized by outside law, but are accepted as plural wives within the community. In The 19th Wife, plural marriage is revealed as a practice which breeds jealousy, diminishes self-esteem and results in the neglect of women and the multitudes of children ravenous for the affection and attention of the sole male head of the imbalanced household.

The 19th Wife: A Novel is rich with history, relying on documents from the archives of the Mormon Church and 19th century newspapers. In its depiction of the subjugation of women in this period of our nation's history, we are reminded of how far we have come in our quest to have it all. We are pressed to examine the ways in which the dignity and aspirations of young women may be inhibited, directly and indirectly, intentionally or otherwise, by the happenstance of their community's faith or socioeconomic status, and by the randomness of the geography of their birth.

This column is by founders Marguerite Dorn, Esq. and Carol O'Day, Esq. Check-out their website and book them for a talk at your next PTA, staff meeting, or women's support group meeting. They offer speaking, training, consulting and mentoring. Browse TheNewHavingItAll bibliography of books. It's an excellent compilation for every phase women face today in the quest to balance work, family and self-fulfillment.



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